The fact that new rules prevented prisoners from receiving books came to public attention in a March 23 article by Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform. “Book banning is in some ways the most despicable and nastiest element of the new rules,” Crook wrote.
Grayling has defended the ban on parcels as necessary to prevent “drugs and extremist materials” from reaching prisoners and to tighten the system of rewards and punishments. “We believe offenders need to behave well and engage in their own rehabilitation if they are to earn privileges and incentives,” he wrote March 24.
Robert Preece, the Howard League’s press officer, explained to the Militant that prisoners are now limited to buying books from a small handful of suppliers that make it on a list. Most can’t afford to do so, he said, because inmates are paid an average of £8 ($13.50) a week for working in-prison jobs and funds sent from family and friends are sharply limited.
Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg supported the ban, saying people can still send books to prison libraries.
“The prison library is poorly stocked and trying to order an unstocked title can lead to a three-month wait,” Nicholas Jordan, a prisoner at HMP Oakwood wrote in a letter to Inside Time. “Though you usually get a slip back saying the title is ‘unavailable.’”
“Denying books is like torture,” Deb Madden told the Militant at a May 3 protest of some 50 people against the use of “joint enterprise” charges. Most participants were relatives of prisoners framed up on such charges, based on being an “associate” of someone convicted of a crime. The protest was organized by Joint Enterprise — Not Guilty by Association (JENGbA).
“They want to decide what you wear, what you read, everything in prison, it’s degrading,” Janet Cunliffe, whose son is serving 12 years on a joint enterprise conviction, said at a JENGbA-organized protest in Manchester the same day.
At the initiative of English PEN and the Howard League, 80 writers, including poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Alan Bennett, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Nick Hornby, signed a March 26 letter of protest. “Books represent a lifeline behind bars,” the letter said, “a way of nourishing the mind and filling the many hours that prisoners spend locked in their cells.”
Duffy led a demonstration of writers and actors outside Pentonville Prison in North London March 28.
Well-known current and former prisoners from a number of countries joined the protest, writing to English PEN about their experiences reading and sharing books in prison.
“Books make up your entire world when you are a prisoner. Because you have books you know that every day you spend behind bars is not a day spent in vain,” wrote Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot who spent nearly two years in a Russian penal colony.
“Your interrogators try to convince you that over the next few years you will become no more than a rotting vegetable in a musty cell,” Tolokonnikova said. “But you spend each and every day of your prison life working on yourself, and this work, in my experience, is more intense, more productive than it would be if you were free. Why? From a need to resist.”
Others joining the fight include Iryna Khalip from Belarus, who was charged with organizing protests against President Aleksandr Lukashenko after his re-election in 2010; Busra Ersanl?, a pro-Kurdish political activist in Turkey; Alan Shadrake, who was jailed in Singapore the day after the publication of a book critical of the judicial system; Teresa Toda, editor of a Basque pro-independence daily, jailed for six years by the Spanish government; and a number of others.
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Defend prisoners’ rights! No book ban!
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