Don’t limit literature in prison

Justice secretary Chris Grayling’s recent prison policy has caused uproar, meeting with almost universal criticism. If you’ve missed the fuss, Grayling has brought in a new policy which sets up a scheme of rewards and privileges for prisoners. A reasonable enough idea perhaps, except that it effectively bans friends from sending parcels to prisoners – the philosophy being that you can’t have what you haven’t earned. This, of course, includes book.

The heavyweights of the literary world, the likes of Salman Rushdie, Philip Pullman, and Carol Ann Duffy have thrown themselves into the row in protest, calling it ‘vindictive’ and ‘disgusting’, and printing a letter in the Telegraph reading ‘whilst we understand that prisons must be able to apply incentives to reward good behaviour by prisoners, we do not believe that education and reading should be part of that policy.

‘Books represent a lifeline behind bars, a way of nourishing the mind and filling the many hours that prisoners spend locked in their cells. In an environment with no internet access and only limited library facilities, books become all the more important.’

As one might imagine, shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan has done his bit, saying that if it wanted ‘to truly rehabilitate prisoners David Cameron’s government would be encouraging reading, not making it more difficult than it already is’. This is not just political scrapping. There is good evidence that Khan is right, and that a system which limits prisoners’ reading effectively shoots itself in the foot.

The evidence comes from an unlikely direction – Texas. With one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and a state which still allows the death penalty, it seems an odd place to look when the matter of penal systems arises. Or does it? In such an environment, it becomes clear that prisons aren’t working, with judges seeing the same people coming round again and again. This is what kick-started a program called ‘Changing Lives Through Literature’ (CLTL); instead of prison, a six week reading course is offered.

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The results are astonishing. One of the first experiments with the scheme, carried out by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, found that only 18% of those who completed the course reoffended, compared to the control group’s 42%. The cost per offender was only $500. In Britain, the reoffending rate is less drastic, 27%, but one does have to wonder whether we are pouring money into a system which is a deterrent only, with little focus on rehabilitation.

The CLTL scheme is of course fairly radical. But the benefits of reading to the cause of rehabilitation are becoming more and more widely recognised. In 2012, Brazil introduced a scheme whereby for each work of literature, science or philosophy read, an inmate reduces his or her sentence by four days. Part of the idea is simply to increase literacy levels. With over half of UK prisoners having a reading age of an eleven-year-old, and many illiterate altogether, it seems there is something for us to learn from this. Indeed, schemes by the Shannon Trust already promote this cause, teaching basic literacy to inmates.

In limiting access to reading material, the government is surely taking a step backwards, going against the tide of penal systems across the world. Sure, prisoners still have access to the limited prison libraries, and they can still buy books, with money earned through labour, but it is hard to imagine, with £10-15 per week, that even the most literary of inmates will realistically spend it this way. If a reward system is to be introduced, books, a tool for rehabilitation if ever there was one, should be set apart from it.