The prison book ban is not just nasty but bizarre

Encouraging prisoners to read aids their rehabilitation.

Tim Finch is a novelist and communications director at IPPR. He writes in a personal capacity

In one country prisoners can get four days off their sentence for every book they read, in another a ban on sending books to prisoners is being introduced.

The first country – not generally known for its enlightened prison system – is Brazil; the second country – to our shame – is the UK .

The book ban is one aspect of a raft of measures introduced by justice secretary Chris Grayling which would appear to have no purpose other than to make the life of inmates just that little bit more unendurable, while making Mr Grayling look more of a tough guy to the public.  

Anyone with any heart would deplore measures that include prisoners not being allowed to receive homemade birthday cards from their children, but as the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform Frances Crook rightly says, the book ban is not just nasty but bizarre.

A Sao Paulo lawyer, who leads a book donation project for prisons, said about the Brazilian initiative, “a person can leave prison… with an enlarged vision of the world” as a result of the reading they do while confined. And the Guardian columnist Erwin James, who served twenty years of a life sentence before being released in 2004, has observed that “the books I read in prison… helped me to become who I should have been”.

We badly need politicians with the bravery and far sightedness to reform our criminal justice system and ensure that fewer offenders are locked up unnecessarily.

Before the change of regime at the Ministry of Justice, in which the more liberal Ken Clarke was replaced by the more authoritarian Chris Grayling, there were some heartening signs that the use of community based restorative justice and neighbourhood justice panels were being championed by the government.

Now we seem to be back to the bad old days of ‘prison works’.

Of course, even the most enlightened criminal justice system would need to include prisons, and for many crimes only a custodial sentence – sometimes a long one – is necessary and just. But as long as people are in prison, encouraging them to read, among other activities to aid their rehabilitation, is surely the way to go.

Instead with have this deeply reactionary step.

The Booker shortlisted novelist Linda Grant has already talked of a campaign by writers to fight this ban, and perhaps one thing we could all do is to deluge the prison system with books we think prisoners might like to read.

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