Books for Prisoners: Protecting the ‘perks and privileges’ of reading

In July the Howard League called on people to send books directly to justice secretary Chris Grayling, asking that he forward them onto prisoners. Their Books for Prisoners campaign aims to overturn a ruling by the Ministry of Justice that controversially banned the sending of books to prisoners, classifying them as ‘perks and privileges’.

Policy Press asked our author Peter Wallis to share his views on the ban and why he believes the access to books by prisoners needs to be reframed as necessary and essential.

Author Peter Wallis

Author Peter Wallis ‘shocked and saddened’ by book ban

‘If you randomly select 100 people aged 15-18 in custody, 55 will not have had access to full time education prior to custody, and 28 will have had no education at all.’ Peter Wallis, Understanding Restorative Justice

I was shocked and saddened by the news that Ministry of Justice rules may prevent prisoners from receiving books from outside. I started thinking of the lifeline that the written word can provide for those locked away from society.

I thought of Stories Connect, where prisoners discuss books and literature in prisons such as HMP Channings Wood, where one inmate said: “Stories Connect didn’t just change my life, it saved it”. I thought of the psychotherapist Murray Cox who introduced Shakespeare into Broadmoor, which now has regular performances from the RSC. I thought of the work of the Prison Phoenix Trust, which encourages prisoners to consider their time in their cells as an opportunity for spiritual growth. Hundreds of books are sent each year to prisoners to introduce them to the practices of meditation and yoga.


On a more personal note, I thought of my grandfather, who served three and a half years in solitary confinement at HMP Ipswich and in Wormwood Scrubs as a conscientious objector in the First World War. He spent his time in his cell learning German in the hope of contributing to attempts towards reconciliation with the enemy when the war was over, moving his family to Berlin soon after the war ended.

“It seems desperately short-sighted to stop books being sent to prisoners.”

I believe that during his time in prison my grandfather was rationed to 6 books, and was also limited in the amount of paper he could use for correspondence, often sending his letters to his mother in miniscule writing on toilet paper.

It seems desperately short-sighted to stop books being sent to prisoners, many of whom have had little or no previous educational opportunities.

Guardian journalist Erwin James received all of his education inside prison. Surely the government wants to boost any opportunity to enable our most marginalised and poorly educated citizens to feel connected and part of society. How much better by encouraging reading rather than endless gym sessions, TV or computer games?

Understanding restorative justice: How empathy can close the gap created by crime by Peter Wallis is published by Policy Press and available at a discounted rate from our website.  Policy Press will be sending a copy of Peter’s book to Chris Grayling, requesting he pass it onto prisoners as part of the Howard League’s Books for Prisoners campaign.

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