Taking Prisoners' Books Away Denies Them The Opportunity To Rehabilitate

The government's decision to stop prisoners receiving books is a predictably short-sighted and counter-productive one, but what do they care when it's within their interests for prisoners to return to jail?
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I took up my first writer’s residency in a prison in 2010. I had no idea what to expect. My first naïve thought was that I would be required simply to sit in the library and write my novel. I imagined that the occasional prisoner would approach me and ask about my work, perhaps show me some words of his own, and we could have a chat about the redemptive powers of literature over a cup of tea and a stack of Hobnobs. Of course, there was much more to it than that. A writer’s residency meant that I had to go out on the landings and the wings and recruit the writers, run a properly functioning workshop with rules and lesson plans. I had to actively engage and enable the men who turned up. There was no comfy chair where I could chisel away at my masterpiece. Nobody gave a damn about my writer’s cloak of mystery.

The Writers In Prison Network (as it was then called) provided me with all the training and support necessary to work in the unique atmosphere of prison. Clive Hopwood and Pauline Bennet introduced me to a range of techniques and philosophies specifically designed to aid those who wished to write behind bars. Theirs was – and remains – an energy and commitment fuelled not only by the passion of the true creative but, more crucially, by the tried and tested certainty that creative writing can turn lives around. Even lives that have been given up on by those that live them.

One of the things they told me about was Stories Connect, a scheme introduced to UK prisons by the writer Mary Stephenson, after witnessing the success of the “Changing Lives Through Literature” programme that had been successfully piloted in Massachusetts in the early 90s. It had proved to be measurably successful. Within a given period, 18% of those who had taken the CLTL course had re-offended, while the recidivism rate of the parallel group, which had not undertaken CLTL, was 42%. The Stories Connect premise was simple. Prisoners had to attend weekly groups where they discussed stories. It proved to be a revelation. The men and women involved in the groups found it easier to examine the mistakes of their own lives through the prism of fictional characters. They learnt to read in-between the lines of a story and reach a deeper understanding of cause and effect, to identify how actions are rooted in attitude and how such actions could be rectified and altered. In doing so they developed a sense of self-worth, the ability to properly debate and discuss without resorting to aggression or self-deception. And, most crucially, they discovered that most powerful of emotions that good literature invariably evokes: empathy.

At first, I hated working in prison. Actively hated it. Dreaded walking through doors I had to constantly lock behind me. Despised the simmering atmosphere of mutual distrust and antagonism that seemed to permeate every other exchange. Despaired at the endless recycled tales of abuse and waste and nihilism. Gagged at the stink of stale tobacco and bleach that seemed to seep from every surface. Rapidly lost patience with men who could barely grunt a “good morning”. Several times I considered picking up the phone and telling Clive and Pauline that I couldn’t do this anymore.

But gradually it all started to fall into place. The men who came to the workshops started to trust me. They started to trust each other. They began to produce writing that was shockingly good – raw, powerful, honest writing that frequently surprised them as well as me. The lads who couldn’t read and write so well grew the confidence to tell their tales and loved seeing them written down and enjoyed by their peers. We held poetry readings. Wrote and performed plays. Made chapbooks of prose that were proudly sent out to families and friends. Slowly but surely, attitudes shifted. It was undeniable. Mary Stephenson was right. Clive and Pauline were right. Creative writing could rehabilitate.

Chris Grayling’s decision to stop prisoners’ families sending in books is obviously shortsighted and predictably counter-productive, but it also masks a much deeper problem. Of course prisoners should be able to receive books from their friends and families. None of the reasons offered for this prohibition stands up to scrutiny. The mewling about security is risible. Security is a constant watchword in prison and the staff are very adept and able at checking parcels. They’ve been doing it ever since prisons began. Grayling’s defensive assertion that prisoners no longer get “privileges” just by “keeping their nose clean” but by engaging in “proper rehabilitative activity” would be hilarious if it weren’t so heartbreakingly contradictory. Books can change lives. It’s been proven. What better way to rehabilitate than to read?

But availability of books is not the problem. The library shelves in the prison where I work are stacked with stimulating prose and informative non-fiction. But they are largely left untouched. The most widely borrowed titles are usually ‘true crime’ – puffed up autobiographies of infamous gangsters and football hooligans seeking hero status, or ‘fantasy’ – tales of dungeons and dragons in faraway lands. These genres are not to be dismissed, but if rehabilitation is the desirable end result of the prison experience nor can they be said to be particularly helpful. A steady diet of Chopper Reid and Gandalf the Grey will not challenge preconceived ideas or help the reader re-imagine the world in any objective fashion.

The sad reality is that that too many prisoners do not readily reach for books that could widen their frame of reference or illuminate their thinking in new and challenging ways. But when such work is presented to them, they devour it. They can’t get enough of it. Think poetry is for silly upper class cissies? Read Charles Bukowski. Think stories can only be about heroic people leading heroic lives? Here’s Raymond Carver. Scoff at the idea that a novel can predict the future? Read George Orwell. The list goes on and on. If I had a pound for every cynical hard-bitten con who has been blown away by a book he never dreamed could exist I’d have enough money to re-open every library in the land.

Far from being stymied, the flow of books into prison needs to be opened up. And the people who use books as aids to rehabilitation should be increased tenfold. The principles that underpin Stories Connect should be implemented in every prison in the UK. The Writers in Prison Network lost its Arts Council funding last year. Many residencies ended and were not renewed. This is an appalling state of affairs. There should be a writer in residence in every prison in the UK. Of course this will not happen, mainly because the current government’s mindset is not sufficiently enlightened to fully grasp the possibilities of such a scheme. In fact, after witnessing the system that the governors and officers and offenders are obliged to work within, I have come to the conclusion that David Cameron’s coalition government do not care whether people are rehabilitated or not.

Indeed, it’s blatantly clear that they would rather offenders kept returning to jail. Otherwise, how would their newly privatized probation system profit? Why else chip away at legal aid? How else do you explain the bricklaying and carpentry workshops and the Art and Craft classrooms left deserted by the most recent savage bouts of cuts in every prison in the country? The working classes are obsolete, according to the Old Boys’ Club that runs the country. They will not admit it, but it’s clearly what they think. They are not interested in rehabilitation. The revolving door of the UK prison system suits them down to the ground. After all, they don’t have to live within the communities most affected by recidivist criminals. Shame on them and their destructive shortsighted policies.

Russ Litten is the author of Swear Down, published by Tindal Street Press.