Friday, 28 March 2014

Books, Prisons and Presents

After feeling uninspired for so long it's a relief to get my focus back, and one area will be this blog; I've only been posting reviews and updates on writing in the main because I wasn't giving myself enough time to come up with anything more interesting. That ends now and you know what that means; I'm back on my soapbox, to wave my arms at the sky and proclaim warnings about the ides of March. Or I'll just rant about something stupid I saw online.

This week's "you've got to be kidding me" moment came along when I read that books had been banned in UK prisons. Reading past the press hyperbole, my blood pressure lowered (slightly) when I understood that packages from outside are no longer allowed to be delivered to prisoners in the UK under new rules introduced by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. He's yet another minister in charge of an area he has absolutely no first hand experience in, but that's a frustration I'll not go into right now (apart from saying I think it's ridiculous that this is how government works. The Greeks must be spinning in Hades.)

There are arguments I understand against allowing prisoners to receive parcels, the number one being the risk of drugs and other banned items being brought into prisons. But surely this isn't a problem if, (a) searches of parcels are mandatory and (b) the people doing those searches are themselves observed and double checked to prevent any dodgy dealings. I strongly suspect the majority of drugs behind bars are coming from staff, not a Christmas present some kid is sending their Dad or Mum. Apparently searches are too hard to do (or likely cost too much) so instead prisoners can't get anything for free anymore (including Christmas presents) and instead have to take part in a new "incentives and earned privileges" system. Which essentially means you have to earn funds through cooperation with rehabilitation efforts, which you can then spend on permitted items, like books. So the Con-Dems "pay for everything" (unless you're in government and get expenses) efforts are now being extended to prisons. Nice to know we're all in it together.

Prisoners need to be punished for breaking the law. In some cases for committing horrendous crimes. This is why I am fully supportive of prison not being a nice place to be, and that rehabilitation is vitally important. I don't understand how allowing a small number of parcels to be delivered to prisoners from the outside is going to interfere with any of that. Those parcels from friends or family may be the only thing reminding someone of the life they could have outside. It could be the one thing that keeps them going, that makes them believe that there will in fact be a life for them when they have paid their dues, and encourage them to rehabilitate. As for the book question, I'm not surprised that a large number of authors have condemned this move and have set up a petition to have it reviewed and amended. Libraries are facing cuts and often have a limited selection; I'm willing to bet that the situation is no better inside prisons. And the notion that a prisoner will spend the £10 - £20 they would get a week (dependent upon behaviour) on books is either naive or cunningly vindictive. As much I love books, I don't think it would be top of the priority list if I were serving time, especially when basics like underwear and extra clothes also need to be purchased. And that's before considering cigarettes, porn and the fact that a significant amount of prisoners struggle with literacy. At least being given books by friends encourages them to try to read, during those long dull hours in their cell.

The thing I find most worrying about this move is the signs of my country falling blindly into extreme right-wing ideology. I thought prisons were meant to be a place of punishment and redemption. Part of encouraging someone to redeem themselves, and to be a law abiding citizen, is to show them a certain amount of grace and even kindness, deserved or not. Go too harsh and they will have no reason to play by the nice rules of society. Why should they when they can't even get a pair of knickers sent to them by their nearest and dearest?

The petitions can be found here. I have signed and would encourage anyone who believes that banning books and presents for prisoners is a step too far to do the same.

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