Prison reading

A few years ago I visited a prison to give a reading and run a writing workshop, the only time I’ve ever done such a thing. I wrote about it here at the time, but even without referring back to that post, I have a very clear memory of the whole afternoon.

I’m reminded of it now by the row that has erupted this week over the curtailment of access to books for inmates in English prisons. Writers such as Mark Haddon, Philip Pullman, Salman Rushdie and Carol Ann Duffy have weighed in against Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s recent ‘vindictive’ and ‘barbaric’ restrictions. Under rules introduced last November, prisoners can no longer receive small parcels from outside, but only cards and letters. This has the effect of a ban on the gift of books. Prisoners therefore have to resort to the prison library, should there be one, or buy books if they can afford them – which many can’t on the meagre weekly prisoner’s allowance unless they happen to earn an increase for good behaviour – from a catalogue whose contents are apparently known only to the Justice Ministry.

The first thing I recall from my own prison experience was the reaction of one particular inmate to a favourite Dark Angels exercise in which we invite people to describe someone familiar in a series of metaphors. The man had caught my attention as soon as he and his fellow inmates trooped into the day room where we were running the session. Thick set and covered in tattoos, he radiated a manic, almost menacing energy. He spoke very fast in a nearly unintelligible local patois and I guessed that he’d had practically no education. But his response to the exercise, a poem about the prison governor, was vivid and passionate and funny. When I congratulated him on it, the smile he returned made me wonder if he had ever before been told by anyone that he had made a good job of something. I later learned that he had been a gangland hitman, convicted of several murders.

The other thing I particularly recall was the writer-in-residence, who was my host for the afternoon, explaining as we walked to the day room how little support she got from the authorities and how each new idea she proposed for her inmates’ writing group had to be fought for every step of the way. We turned a corner and she pointed at a broom cupboard on a couple of whose shelves stood a sorry collection of dog-eared paperbacks. ‘That’s the library,’ she said shaking her head. ‘I’ve tried and tried to get them to give me money to buy more books but they just don’t want to know.’

There on the one hand was a murderer revealing his humanity through words and images he had written on a page; while on the other, in their attitude to the prison ’library’, the authorities were revealing their lack of understanding of, or perhaps willfully denying, the power of those very words and images to humanise, to connect and expand a person’s world view.

Reading is increasingly seen as an essential part of rehabilitation. There are successful prison programmes in many countries, including the UK, that introduce people who may never have read before to fiction, exposing them to the moral truths it can convey, the empathy and imaginative thinking it can stimulate. Yet in the prison I visited any such beneficial effects were taking place despite the authorities rather than because of them. And that was in Scotland where we didn’t then and thankfully don’t now have a Justice Secretary who is openly committed to retrogressive, right-wing penal policies and a ‘regime that is more spartan unless you do the right thing’.

The right thing surely is to recognise that reading a book is frequently learning by stealth and that lack of learning, directly attributable to poverty and deprivation, is why the majority of both England’s and Scotland’s inmates are in prison in the first place.

About Jamie Jauncey

Author, writer, blogger, facilitator, musician, co-founder of Dark Angels and The Stories We Tell
This entry was posted in Dark Angels, Education, Fiction, Personal development, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Prison reading

  1. Carolyn S says:

    Those who love to read will not be surprised by a study once done… in a USA midwest uni?… that showed that increasing one’s fictional reading increased one’s empathy. Can’t remember the details, but it somehow showed that boys, particularly those who are in uni on sport scholarships, such that they had very little time to read ( and i think it was fiction particularly) suffered from depression more, and had less empathy. I keep emphasising fiction because i believe it is a key to keeping one’s self in tune with oneself, at least for me!! Works in some subtle way. And of course leads to understanding of other people often as well. Sorry I cannot remember the details of the study more thoroughly ….. But this blog reminds me of it. But as far as prison goes, it has long been a fight, or debate?, as to whether it’s purpose is rehabilitation or punishment. I am afraid the punishers usually win. From what I hear, very little rehab takes place ….. EVER. Wonder why you only went once, Jamie?? Sounds like an amazing experience!!!

  2. Faye Sharpe says:

    As all oppressors know burn or ban the books and you control a people’s mind. The true punishment and lasting tragedy is the imprisonment of the mind. Cruel and inhumane.

  3. James Robertson says:

    The ‘punishers’, as Carolyn says, usually win in this ongoing war to rethink what prisons are for and why people end up in them. As Jamie points out, many prison libraries are completely inadequate in terms of their contents, and many prisoners have only very limited access to the books that are available. We all know the civilising, humanising effects of reading: nobody with any experience in education or even, dare I say it, life, would deny these positive benefits. Yet when it comes to the places where these effects are most needed, the punishers have a very different attitude. They, and their baying dogs in parts of the media, want us to believe that prisons in the UK are holiday camps where bad men lead cosseted lives and are effectively ‘rewarded’ for their crimes. If they had ever set foot inside a prison they would know that this is untrue. To restrict the opportunities to read in prisons is a completely retrogressive and foolish move, and despite ministerial denials that is exactly what the policy in English and Welsh prisons will achieve.

  4. For me, one of the the most terrifying threats in literary fiction is when Ursula Monkton says she’ll send the boy in ‘The Ocean at The End of the Lane’ up to the attic room and there’ll be “no more stories.”
    Grayling’s vision of prison is chillingly Orwellian in its seeming desire to remove liberty of body and liberty of mind. But punishment, rather than rehabilitation seems to be the focus.

  5. Martin Lee writes: Years ago in Waterstone’s, we won lots of awards for a series of ads, of which I’ve attached one, where an idea about the power of reading was captured in a specially designed book cover [image of armed guards and the title: The most common tool for escape from prison isn’t a shovel]. I was immediately reminded of this one by your blog post today. From memory, this particular ad was the most commonly cited, and to our amazement, HMPrison Service got in touch with us to ask us if we could run off several hundred copies of it for them to put up in prisons to act as thought provoking material for inmates. Times have sadly changed…

  6. Neil Baker says:

    And we wonder why you want to vote for independence, Jamie?

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