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.