‘A Night in the Cells’ – Let Them Read Books.

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Last week I attended ‘A Night in the Cells’ held in the old offices of Pavilion books, which also happen to be the Old West London Magistrates Court containing six grade two listed cells. ‘A Night in the Cells’ was a fundraising event organised by Pavilion Books in association with the Book Trade Charity and the Howard League for Penal Reform, with all money raised going towards the campaign to repeal the recent legislation that prevents friends and family members giving their loved ones in prison small gifts –most importantly books.

The current Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, believes that he can control the banned items making their way into prisons by preventing them coming via books and other small objects given by family members, dismissing the fact that banned items get into prison in innumerable nefarious ways (I may have been watching too much Orange is the New Black), and that banning books as gifts will make a negligible impact on the problem.

This decision has naturally provoked uproar in the publishing community, and some of the most notable members of this community (including the literary agent Clare Conville, and Hachette CEO David Young) decided to demonstrate the importance of a good book during confinement. The six most successful fundraisers were to be locked up in the cells for a night, accompanied by a book of their choice. I unfortunately couldn’t stick around for their internment, but I had a good look at the cells –while it’s true that the cells were made a fair bit more comfortable than they would have been when in use, I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to spend a dark and chilly night in any of them.

It was all worthwhile for the fundraisers, as they managed to raise almost £48,000 for the cause and brought the public’s attention back to the issue in the run-up to their ‘imprisonment’. Prisoners’access to literature of any kind is becoming embarrassingly limited, even more so in the light of our troubling breach of the European Court of Human Rights ruling, which states that our blanket ban on prisoner voting is unlawful. David Cameron’s decision to “clip the wings” of the European Court evidently shows that he won’t be told.

Prison is rarely the end of the story, and there must be greater pressure on rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is the key to deterring crime –prison is not. Prison should be used as a tool, and not used like a spare room or an attic, as a place to keep our society’s detritus or hide the things we no longer want to think about. Crime isn’t committed in a vacuum, and removing funding from the arts, from libraries, from welfare, leaving us poorer and less creatively stimulated is compounding the problem.

Reading literature is the lifeblood of education, a cultural and creative activity that constantly improves not only our literacy, but makes us aware of the world around us. It gives us power by keeping us informed and broadening our minds. Almost half of UK prisoners don’t have any qualifications, and a considerable amount need assistance with reading and writing. This isn’t a coincidence. Removing the prospect of books as gifts cannot be adequately compensated by prison libraries, as they are burdening the swathe of library cuts just as they are on the high street. Nicola Solomon, General Secretary of The Society of Authors, wrote in her recent letter to Chris Grayling, criticising the restrictions on books in prison: “Any tightening of restrictions on prisoners being sent books has a disproportionate effect because prisons seem to be failing in their statutory responsibility to provide adequate library services to prisoners”. Cuts in local authority budgets mean that there is less money going into prisons to maintain essential services. There are staff shortages in prisons, meaning that there are less officers to escort prisoners to the libraries, and less people to maintain the libraries.

Looking at the statistics we know that reading and education is a significant factor in the prison demographic, yet as Ian Dunt states on politics.co.uk, ‘Prisoners are discouraged from educating themselves in a variety of ways. Anything below GCSE can be done in the education centre, but for courses above that level you need to work with providers outside the prison. Inmates need to take out a loan for the course, usually of between £500 to £1,000.’ The luxury of an external tutor is also often an unlikely addition to a prisoner’s education.

There is an unwarranted assumption made by too many people that those who commit crimes aren’t entitled to the same basic human rights as a free person – an unwillingness to see their surroundings in shades of grey. Prisoners are part of our society, and a product of it, so the least we can do is make it easier for them to read a book and learn a bit while they have time on their hands.

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