Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Saturday 29 March 2014

Let’s Get Them Hooked on Books!

Christopher Grayling, Secretary of State for Justice, has caused a furoré.

Well of course he has! He’s banned prisoners from receiving books. 

We all think it’s a bad thing. We all think that it’s a human rights violation. We all think that the best thing we could possibly do for the incarcerated is improve their minds, and we all believe that one very decent possibility of doing that is to provide them with books to read... And, do you know what, in an ideal World, we’d probably be right.

We do not live in an ideal World!

Our local prison
A Sex Offenders Unit
For a percentage of inmates, books are just another way to get drugs into prisons. This is one of those occasions when the rotten apples spoil it all for everyone else.

Such is life.

Everything that comes into a prison has to be checked for contraband. I suppose a lot of man hours could be spent riffling through books and whatnot. I say bring in a half-decent sniffer dog and all it costs is the training and a crap-ton of Chum, but, you know, my view can be a simplistic one.

Drugs are bad!

I get that.

But here’s the thing that Christopher Grayling in his swingeing whatnot seems to have left behind: Books are GOOD!

Books transform lives. They transform hearts and minds.

If for every inmate that was hooked on drugs there was one hooked on books how different rehab could be.

And here is Christopher Grayling taking away the last opportunity for that to become even the slightest possibility. The more fool him!

Here’s a radical idea: set up a reading group for the staff. Give the correction officers a chance to read and see how they feel about how reading changes their lives, and then see how they feel about checking books as they come in for inmates. They might mind less. They might begin to feel that the time spent was time well-spent. Who knows, maybe some of them believe that already.

We don’t lock people up for nothing. Incarceration is its own punishment. 

Human rights are something else, and the right to read is, I think, humanising and transcendent, and I think that reading is its own reward, and I think that it generates a greater understanding of... well... just about anything and everything.

We put books in our children’s hands to form their minds and their characters. How is this different for anyone? How is this different for convicts? Surely we need to reach people who are morally ambivalent or who have lost their way in the World more than we need to reach others with words and with literature and with ideas. Surely they can be changed more than the rest of us by what they read?

I have been an avid listener to Desert Island Discs over a great number of years, and I am always surprised and impressed by the choices of books the participants make after they’ve been given the bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. Even these basics seem to be lacking from so many lives. So many people seem incapable of reading and interpreting these texts that so many of us feel are fundamental to our lives and our understanding of the human condition. It’s the Bible for crying out loud! And Shakespeare!

The human condition is at its most fundamental, and at its most critical for those at the edges of our society. Those who need books most, those who need most to look at their circumstances and come to a better understanding of what brought them to their present time and place are those in the most compromised positions, and some of those people are in our prison system.

Give them Shakespeare! Give them Chaucer and Milton and Becket! Hell! Give them Trollope (both if you like - Anthony and Joanna)... Give them Ian Rankin and Philip Pullman... Give them Mark Haddon, Anthony Horowitz, Susan Hill, Emma Donaghue and anything else they want to read. Give them bloody Enid Blyton!

Who are we to deny them?

I’m all for doing something about the drug culture in our prisons, but for every inmate addicted to drugs, if we could just get one addicted to reading maybe we could change a little corner of the World, and if we could do that for one offender, we could free the World of one offender’s crimes... maybe.

It’s a maybe worth pursuing... in my mind, at least.

It can’t do any harm, and it could do an awful lot of good, and in the meantime, all you’ve got is a lot of men and women with time on their hands, who are spending that time with their noses in books, instead of spending it angry, frustrated and looking for an outlet for all that negative energy.

Seriously, you take a look at the maths.  

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