Thursday, 3 April 2014

Banning books in jails - crime and ConDem punishment

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.
Prison escape
The punitive mind of gallery-playing politicians, it seems, knows no bounds.

Yet, sometimes the response can look like the stirrings of a j'accuse-style novel.   

A gathering protest by writers and the wider public is underway after ConDem justice minister Chris Grayling ordered severe restrictions on book access for prison inmates, part of a new repressive regime being imposed in jails across England and Wales.

Grayling's reforms have also seen more privatised services handed to groups like G4S and Serco.

Leading the backlash, notable literary figures, from poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy to AL Kennedy and Irving Welsh, have condemned the book ban as a vindictive and regressive policy which violates basic human rights, increases isolation and sets-back prospects of rehabilitation for many prisoners.

including Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Linda Grant and Professor Mary Beard, as well as others including the musician Billy Bragg, have demanded that Grayling drop the ban. Pullman tweeted: "It's one of the most disgusting, mean, vindictive acts of a barbaric government."The crime novelist Rankin said: "From visits to prisons and talking to prisoners, I know how important books can be in promoting literacy and connecting prisoners to society."Bragg tweeted: "People in prison need rehabilitation, not retribution. Coalition bans guitars, now deny prisoners books."
Grayling's action has even provoked Tory unease, as well as notable public reaction:
Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition and sent photographs of bookshelves to the MoJ's Twitter account using the hashtags #shelfie and #booksforprisoners.
Frances Crook, head of the Howard League for Penal Reform, has denounced the policy as:
part of an increasingly irrational punishment regime orchestrated by Chris Grayling that grabs headlines but restricts education or rehabilitation.
Noting the additional prohibitions on receiving basic personal items such as underwear, and the decline of prison libraries, Crook adds:
The rules governing possessions of prisoners are arcane and not consistently applied by every prison. These new restrictions relate to a downgrading of the system of rewards and punishments, ostensibly designed to encourage prisoners to comply with prison rules. Yet the ban on receiving books is a blanket decision, so no matter how compliant and well behaved you are, no prisoner will be allowed to receive books from the outside. 
Grayling and his supporters claim that such measures are intended to manage the increasing volume of parcels to prisoners and to prevent smuggling of drugs.  
But behind such spurious mitigation lies a much darker mindset, the same malevolent policy thought that's gone into 'welfare reform', with its targeted punishments on the poor and sick. 
As Clive Martin, director of the prison networking and advocacy charity Clinks, asserts: 
In my experience working in prison education, I met very few people who didn't want to change. But in public discourse and the way the issues are presented to the public by policymakers, there seems to be a sense that we have given up on hope. We talk about 'the market' and 'programmes', but we don't talk about people. For whatever reason, empathy has been pushed to the sidelines.
Imagine ministers and policy-makers expending such time and energy on more constructive and humane ways to treat prisoners, as with the Norwegian penal approach, which, in negating useless deprivation for education and assistance, registers the lowest re-offending rate in Europe.
How very different here in Victorian-languishing Britain. From 'social security' to prison security, compassionate-based policy seems anathema to minds so concentrated on panopticon-type surveillance, social control and breaking the spirit of other human beings. One tries to feel some compassion for their own scarred psychology.
Perhaps if the great Oscar Wilde were incarcerated today, he'd be penning 'The Ballad of Reading in Jail', another wistful lament for a harsh, outmoded system. 


  1. Great Article John

    this is just Disgusting activity. i think they get a kick, and perverted thrill out of it.

    there was a report out last year -

    Researchers from Emory University in Atlanta published their work in the journal Brain Connectivity, where they revealed reading a novel can have lasting effects on the brain. -

    Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain

    Lead researcher and neuroscientist Gregory Berns says it indicates a good book can actually put you in the protagonist’s body.

    “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

    Thanks John

  2. Thanks for your comments and link, beautiful Sakura.

    The conclusions of the study reads:

    "In summary, we have demonstrated that across the likely array of diverse experiences encountered by our participants, there was a detectable and significant common alteration of their RSN associated with reading sections of a novel the previous evening. Moreover, these changes could be segregated into networks associated with short-term changes originating near the left angular gyrus and long-term changes dispersed bilaterally in somatosensory cortex. It remains an open question for further study as to how lasting these effects are, but our results suggest a potential mechanism by which reading stories not only strengthen language processing regions but also affect the individual through embodied semantics in sensorimotor regions."

    As you suggest, one wonders what kind of dark sensory kick policymakers get in knowing that they're depriving others of positive sensory feeling.