Dostoevsky would be narked. “The degree of civilisation in a society”, he once said, “can be judged by entering its prisons.” In the UK, that degree of civilisation might now also be judged by what is not entering prisons. Crime and Punishment – along with the rest of Dostoevsky’s writing, and, in fact, all other books - may no longer be sent to inmates residing in any of the UK’s correctional facilities. Mercifully, the right to stare at a wall and marinate slowly in guilt, fury and boredom has been left untouched.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling – among the busiest parliamentarians in Westminster - perhaps hasn’t had the time to pick up a copy of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. If he had, surely the contradictions of his drive to improve the justice system would by now be obvious. On the one hand Grayling wants to cut re-offending through reforms to the probation system. On the other he seems willing to demean prisoners by making it harder to access books, and – as part of last year’s toughening of punishments - watch 18-rated movies or go to the gym. The line of thought seems to be: the state will treat prisoners like wayward children when they are behind bars, then hope that, on their release, the private contractors hired under the new probation system will iron out any problems this causes and turn the formerly-incarcerated into conscientious, kind members of the outside world.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman has said the ban exists to shore up an existing incentives scheme to reward good behaviour, and points out the availability of books in a prison libraries. Some of the outrage at it may stem from the tastes of the bleeding-heart liberal, who imagines that a spell in jail would be perfect for catching up on somebody or other's collected works. I'll admit to that: watch a documentary like Shakespeare Behind Bars (2005) – which charts a performance of The Tempest - and part of you starts to believe that every prison could be stocked full of unfulfilled Shakespeare lovers, willing to be set on the path to redemption through Elizabethan blank-verse. But then again, why not? Two recent studies claimed respectively that harsher prison conditions do not reduce re-offending, and that youth crime is driven by "a lack of moral and cognitive development" - the kind of thing the arts should help with - not opportunism.
Of course the problems with the UK’s prison system go far deeper than the availability of reading material: overcrowding for one, as well as a lack of activities and mental health support. But with those problems as expensive to address as they are, how can it possibly help matters to prevent prisoners from reading as much as possible, from as many sources as they can? Grayling’s ban is short-sighted and counter-productive. Reading opens up the minds and motivations of other people. Someone should write a book about what it feels like to have too little to do, for years, in a cell – and post it to the Justice Secretary. He might learn something useful.