On Prisons and Books.

So. The ‘prison book ban’. It’s not actually a ban, but it’s still a pretty stupid rule, and I fancied writing about it.

What the ‘prison book ban’ actually is, is a ban on all parcels for inmates who aren’t brand new. Brand new inmates are allowed one care package, I believe, and that’s it.

Apparently, it’s because Chris Grayling has introduced a new sliding scale of privileges, and he believes prisoners being able to receive parcels from outside would undermine this new system. (Previously, new inmates would start out halfway up the privileges ladder, and would move around according to behaviour. Now, like all Tory policies, everyone starts at the bottom.)

Books aren’t the only things included in the ban. Homemade cards (!) and underwear (!!) are, too, amongst plenty of other things. Apparently, female prisoners are only allowed to have 7 pairs of knickers, so not allowing new underwear is rather bizarre. I usually wear 2 pairs of pants a day – I change them after I come home from work because ew, sometimes they’re a bit sweaty (TMI there, I apologise). And what about women who suffer from heavy periods? Really, the stupidity of these rules beggars belief.

It’s petty rules like this that have always made me dislike authority. Like the rule in school of having your top button up – there is no point to it other than one group of people exerting their power over another group of people.

But not allowing books is just ridiculous. Yes, all prisons have libraries. But no library stocks every single book. On some of the comment threads on The Guardian, recent ex-prisoners have been writing about their experiences with prison libraries and they all agree that provision is pretty patchy. A lot say that many prisoners don’t want to be seen in the library because it damages their image, which is understandable in an institution where image means everything.

They can be sent books that come directly from a company like Amazon, however. You know, a company that’s famed for not paying their taxes. And since majority of prisoners come from poor backgrounds, you can immediately see the problem with this.

For many, many people, books are a lifeline. In some prisons, prisoners are kept in their cells up to 20 hours a day. What the hell are they going to do with their time in there? Reading seems the obvious example. Not only does reading help take your mind off things, it opens new doors, it educates, and it makes you think. Maybe that’s what the powers that be are scared of.

Literacy levels in prisons are appallingly low. Why would you take away a chance for them to educate themselves? And it’s not just novels – many prisoners undertake Open University courses. As an OU alumni myself, I am acutely aware of how vital the OU is for people who can’t attend a physical university. OU courses not only broaden the mind, they give prisoners the chance to learn new skills, so that when they are released they can finally make something of themselves and contribute to society. Don’t we want that?

But, you might be thinking, prisoners are criminals. They have done something wrong. And yes, they have. They should be punished. But isn’t taking away their freedom and liberty punishment enough? Removing them from their friends and family and society is enough to instil fear into most of us. Why do we insist on meting out more and more punishments, making prisoners more and more alienated? It’s all to please the Daily Mail brigade that every single political party appears to pander to.

But our approach isn’t working. A quick Google reveals that our recidivism rates are 60-70%. How does that not disgust us? Why are we not taking a long hard look at our methods and practices and realising that they aren’t working? When you think about prison, it really is a ridiculous concept – putting criminals in a big building full of other criminals. Yeah, I don’t foresee any problems there…

I’m not against prisons, of course. Offenders need to be punished and to be kept away from society until they can safely return to it again. BUT, our prison system is not working. Look at Norway, for example. A recidivism rate of 20%. And why is it so low? Because they are more focused on rehabilitation than punishment. Being in prison is the punishment; there is no need to take it further. What we should be focusing on is why those people are in prison and how do we help them to turn their lives around? Whether it’s a lack of education, a life of poverty or mental health problems, we should be giving prisoners the skills and help to start bettering themselves and turning their lives around, so that when they get out they can be productive members of society.

I would have thought rehabilitation was key. Do we want ever-expanding prisons filled with more and more criminals, or do we want to get hold of these criminals when they are at the lowest point of their lives, and help them to turn themselves around and make something of themselves?

I know which I’d prefer.

Nikki x


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