Dear prisons minister: Here's the truth about prison libraries

The truth about prison libraries
The truth about prison libraries
Ian Dunt By

"This is a sensible restriction on packages into prisons," Jeremy Wright told the Commons last week, as he batted away questions about the prisoner book ban. "There is no restriction on prisoners being able to read or study."

But still the questions came.  "If they're worried about prisoners having access to books," the prisons minister added, "I've reassured them they don't need to worry about that."

Wright is wrong. MPs do need to worry about that.

Ministers have said that although prisoners are banned from being sent books in parcels from family and friends, they can still access the prison library and have 12 books in their cell at one time.

But even a cursory glimpse at the reality of life behind bars shows that the prison library service - a legacy of Winston Churchill's crusading zeal - is in a state of disrepair. The libraries are being starved of funds. Staffing cuts have left prisoners unable to attend the library because there is no-one to escort them. Confusion over the parcel ban is leaving many prisons turning away books which, by law, should be delivered to the education department.

This is the reality of access to books behind the prison gates. It is very far away from ministers' reassurances.

Finding out about it is difficult. The education providers who work with the prison service are usually unwilling to talk to reporters or say anything critical about the system, for fear of being frozen out by the Ministry of Justice. Some refuse to talk to you, others do so only on the strict condition it is kept off the record. Some, like the Open University, will only issue statements that have been signed off by the National Offender Management Service (Noms), so asking them for a frank appraisal is redundant. Many providers have simply been co-opted into the system. Prisoners themselves can only talk to journalists if they have the permission of the governor - a permission which is rarely given and only arrives weeks later if it is. Even those released on licence are strongly discouraged from talking to journalists, due to a ban on doing anything which could bring the prison service "into disrepute".

But off the record, the people who work in prisons say the system is coming apart at the seams.

The biggest issue is access. Of the prison inspections conducted last year, half found library access or provision needed to be improved. In a yearly survey of prisoners conducted by the Prisoners' Education Trust and magazine Inside Times, a third of inmates said access to the library was poor.

"Prisoner access to libraries is just not happening," Marek Kazmierski, managing editor  of Not Shut Up, a magazine of arts and writing by inmates, says.

"Staffing cuts mean they can't be escorted down. With the staff they've got, most prisons don't prioritise libraries. They prioritise gyms and visits.

"They're certainly suffering. My grave fear is we're going back to what happened years ago, when elderly volunteers would cycle a trolley around the prison out of the good of their heart."

Prison staff redundancies have led to prisoners spending more and more time in their cells. From libraries, to jobs, to gyms - access is down across the board. Governors have seen a huge leap in suicides since Chris Grayling's draconian "right-wing solutions" were implemented last November. There are fears of a spike in prison assaults and self-harm. With that in the background, most of the remaining resources are poured into trying to keep the prisons as safe and secure as possible. Libraries are very far down the list of priorities.

"Wandsworth prison has over 1,600 inmates. Imagine how difficult it is is to schedule an officer taking parties of ten inmates to the library for 30 minutes," Kazmierski adds.

A recent letter to Grayling from Society of Authors chief executive Nicola Solomon raised concerns that prisoners were not receiving their statutory requirement of half an hour in the library every fortnight.

"Any tightening of restrictions on prisoners being sent books has a disproportionate effect because prisons seem to be failing in their statutory responsibility to provide adequate library services to prisoners," she wrote.

"In many prisons, access to library facilities does not comply with the statutory minimum… book stock in many prisons is poor, often damaged or out-of-date and inter-library loan requests are often slow or not actioned at all."

Sarah Turvey, who organises prison reading groups from Roehampton University, says changes in work schedules for officers and inmates have kept many from being able to access the library, where they hold the events.

"We're getting lots of reports from our groups about the difficulties their members cite in getting access to prison libraries," she says. "We get reports of prisoners who've been twice since Christmas because of short staffing.

"The reports we get from our volunteers and librarians are of increasing difficulties."

Ministers are fond of writing off concerns about libraries' lack of stock by saying that they can order books in. The reality does not live up to the rhetoric. Typically prisoners wait months for a book and anecdotally we hear that their request is often responded to by a slip of paper saying they are unable to get the title they requested. Local authorities are less likely to allow prisons to be sent library stock because of their high attrition rates. In some local areas, the system works, in other it doesn't. And with cuts hitting hard, the local authorities responsible for funding prison libraries are increasingly reticent about funnelling their remaining cash into an area which provides so little political advantage.

For those trying to pursue an academic course, the situation is almost impossible. "It's often a specific academic book they require - even a local library service wouldn't have it," a prison education campaigner says. "That's why it's important to be able to order books or have them sent in. You need them soon - you've got assignment deadlines. You can't wait months. If it's something unusual then having family members send it in means you can continue your studies and meet your assignment deadlines."

Prisoners can still be sent in books if they go to the education department and this is how most distance learning courses, for instance by the National Extension College or the Horticultural Correspondence College, are conducted. The system only applies to core reading, so for higher level courses it does not allow prisoners to read around the subject - a particularly damaging restriction given they have no access to the internet.

And even these deliveries, which are still allowed, are being hampered by confusion over the ban on parcels. Education providers say prisoners often complain of not receiving their parcel through the education department, or of books being sent back at the prison gates. Usually the problem can be fixed, but it takes months.

Prisoners are discouraged from educating themselves in a variety of ways. Anything below GCSE can be done in the education centre, but for courses above that level you need to work with providers outside the prison. Inmates need to take out a loan for the course, usually of between £500 to £1,000. Not only that but practical subjects, such a baking or plumbing, require them to convince a whole class of fellow inmates to sign up.

A major disincentive is transferrals. Someone may sign up to a baking course because the prison has a bakery they can use. But they can be transferred to another prison at any time, leaving them without the qualification and with that loan still to pay back. Because of this, hardly any prisoners sign up for courses.

Distance learning is easier, cheaper and you can take the course with you if you are transferred - but it does not offer the same practical aspects. All you get is plumbing theory - no practical experience of plumbing itself. Ministry of Justice research shows prisoners who do distance learning are nevertheless a quarter less likely to reoffend than a matched control group. When asked what would make their study easier, almost 60% of prisoners doing courses said more books and 70% said access to online resources and computers.

"So many of the guys thought they were stupid, because that's what they were told when they were young," an education campaigner says. "They do some learning in prison, realise they're not stupid, get this thirst for learning and think 'let's do Level 3' [equivalent to A-levels] - but then their options are suddenly limited."

The tragedy is that there are some exceptional programmes in prisons, where hard-working, imaginative people are getting inmates reading.

The instinct of many educators is to avoid anywhere that looks even remotely like a classroom. Most prisoners have very bad memories of classrooms. That's why many believe the prison education centres discourage more inmates than they attract. Instead, many educators prefer to use libraries, because they are less informal, or try to embed learning on wings, or in the gym, kitchens or workshops. "Libraries can often be that stepping stone," an organiser says. "They're a bit more informal, a bit more laid back."

Turvey adds: "They are the one space in a  prison where you don't feel you're in a prison. They are hugely important in terms of what can go on in them."

HMP Lewes last year flooded the prison with copies of a book called Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman. They gave it to inmates and staff alike. The prison radio got involved, reading it aloud every night so illiterate prisoners could join in. The author came in and did workshops.

In HMP Swaleside, in Kents, they gave inmates acting as library orderlies an accredited qualification in customer service skills.

In HMP Low Newton, a women's prison in Durham, inmates are given a one-week education induction. Most prisons establish literacy and numeracy levels then leave the rest up to inmates' own initiative. HMP Low Newton recognised that learning in prison involves jettisoning some of that emotional baggage about being stupid.  They spend a week boosting confidence, unravelling beliefs about inadequacy, establishing goals, conducting visits of the education department and the library and setting up meetings with teachers.

Forward-thinking institutions are conducting these experiments with a belief in actually trying to improve prisoners. The experiments work. They increase take-up, they improve education, they cut reoffending.

They are a bastion of rational policy-making against a perfect storm of budget cuts, staff redundancies and a brutalising message from the Ministry of Justice about the priority of punishment over self-improvement.



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