I make no secret of the fact that books are the most crucial non-animate element of my life. I can’t remember a time when my life didn’t revolve around books and reading, nor imagine a time when it ever will. When I am sad, angry, ill, tired, bored or scared it is to books I turn, and reading has never failed to comfort me.
I remember being taught Heinrich Heine’s famous quote – “Where they burn books, they will also burn people” – in a GCSE history lesson, and that I was powerfully struck by its fundamental truth. Books contain the very essence of what it is to be human, and it is inarguable that to destroy books is to damage the whole of humankind. I believe that the same also goes for denying people free access to books.
One of the great achievements of this country is our public libraries. I would say that, wouldn’t I? Both my parents were librarians, my holiday job as a student was in my local library, and now I’m a writer. But it seems like a great hallmark of civilisation that anyone, no matter what their personal or financial circumstances can walk into their local library and read whatever they want, for free. Current austerity measures mean that many public libraries have been closed, and funding is severely restricted. This angers and saddens me, but I can see that when local authorities are being forced, often against their will, to make stringent cuts, that the decisions are tough. Free access to books is crucial, but so too are Meals on Wheels, child protection, the fire service, and so on, so choices have to be made.
However, the news which has emerged this week, namely that Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, has introduced a ban on parcels being sent to prisoners, and that this ban will include books, is iniquitous and utterly indefensible. The excuse that it is too time consuming to put parcels through security checks doesn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny, meaning that the policy can only be seen as petty and malicious. Government sources point out that prisoners are able to earn money which they could use to buy books, but £8 a week doesn’t go very far. I’m a fairly devoted reader, but even I would baulk slightly at spending 100% of my disposable income on books, which is what this would amount to for prisoners who want to read a modest paperback book a week. Yes, there are prison libraries, but given the cuts to which which ordinary public libraries have been subjected, I find it very hard to believe that prison libraries have particularly extensive resources. And there is also an emotional significance to books – a book received as a gift from your partner, parent, child, friend is doubly precious.
Denying prisoners free access to books makes a complete mockery of the notion that prison is about rehabilitation as well as punishment because books are a cornerstone not only of education and learning, but also of spiritual and emotional nourishment. Of course, this ban is not only on parcels of books, but parcels fullstop, meaning that prisoners are also to be denied the consolation of a small gift from their child or basic necessities such as changes of underwear or socks. The punishment aspect of prison is the deprivation of liberty and the separation from loved ones. Extending it further than that, denying prisoners basic human rights such as free access to books, is immoral but also self-defeating. Almost all prisoners will be released at some point. Even if you have no interest whatsoever in their wellbeing, it is surely basic common sense that sending someone back into the community when they are angry and resentful at the way they have been treated, have had no opportunities to enhance their employability, and are nursing years’ worth of crippling boredom into the bargain is asking for trouble.
I feel angry and ashamed that I am living in a country in which this can be introduced as serious Government policy. However, I am also proud and happy to live in a country with fantastic campaigning organisations such as Liberty and The Howard League, and one in which over forty eminent writers, including Alan Bennett, Sir Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Carol Ann Duffy, Mark Haddon, Philip Pullman, Irvine Welsh, Nick Hornby, Ian Rankin, Joanne Harris and Caitlin Moran have formed a coalition to urge the Justice Secretary to rethink his policy. You can add your voice to theirs by signing the petition at www.change.org.
I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.
‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’