A word to Chris Grayling: Getting to the prison library isn't all that easy!

The Week in Books

Arifa Akbar
Thursday 27 March 2014 18:15 GMT
Emma Donoghue has spoken out against the ban
Emma Donoghue has spoken out against the ban (Andrew Bainbridge)

"Let’s be clear about one thing: prisoners’ access to reading material is not being curtailed… All prisoners have access to the library, irrespective of which institution they are being held in.”

These words – the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling’s, after outrage at his restrictions on sending books to prisoners – might have us imagining the average prisoner waking-up to the languorous thought: “I fancy a read today”, before pootling down to the library which, for those who think inmates have it easy, may as well be imagined as a building the size and breadth of the super-library in Birmingham, with plasma screens, latte bars, expensive periodicals and all.

In reality, the library is not quite as easy to access nor as well-furnished. Cathy Rentzenbrink, project director of Quick Reads, a charity that makes books available to prisoners, among others, says access varies hugely: some are only able to go there every six weeks (one letter in our sister paper, i, mentioned a friend inside who had been allowed one trip in ten weeks). When there’s a security scare, a library visit is among the first freedom to go. Only a certain number of people are allowed in at a time. Innumerable doors must be unlocked by an accompanying officer, if one is available that is, though this may be a luxury in a Prison Service that has found itself over-stretched and under-staffed. If our libraries have suffered from local authority cuts, then prison libraries have been more depleted.

Once a prisoner gets there – a prisoner who has perhaps signed up for an A level or Open University course in a bid to take rehabilitation seriously – how long must he or she wait for essential reading material? And how long must a person wait for a book that is creating a buzz on the “outside” to appear on the library shelf, a person who might only just have learned to read properly (given the literacy rates in prisons this is not uncommon)? Probably much longer than we’d have to wait.

Why is this a big deal? Well, it isn’t for those who think of books as nothing more than a casual distraction. But what idiot thinks that? Certainly not the Justice Secretary, who has made clear he understands the link between reading and rehabilitation. He must surely have seen the recent study by the Ministry of Justice which found a link between prisoners who read/receive an education inside, and their reduced rate of re-offending: “The one year proven re-offending rate for 3,085 offenders who received the service was 19 per cent, compared with 26 per cent for a matched control group of similar offenders.”

Rod Clark, chief executive of the Prisoners’ Education Trust, said he had encountered frustrated learners, including one who “couldn’t get his academic textbooks [that] he had ordered from an approved, secure supplier”. Books aren’t just about gaining qualifications either. They do much more for those in confinement. Sarah Turvey, university lecturer and co-director of the brilliant ‘Prison Reading Groups’, has countless examples: the father who is reading the books on his son’s GCSE syllabus to feel connected to him; the daughter who just finished reading Call the Midwife passed on to her by her mum; the wife who sends books to her husband, to have an icebreaker for those first fraught moments of a prison visit. And for those who have damaged lives (and damaged the lives of others, maybe), a book can open them up to empathy, and that can be transformative. As Ms Turvey points out, books make us look inside ourselves and connect us to others at once. Visiting The Independent offices this week, Emma Donoghue, the author of Room, spoke of her central character’s confinement: she was held prisoner by her abuser for five years with only five books to read. A torment indeed, to have her inner world narrowed so, which prisoners may have come a little bit closer to facing this week.

Secret of Emma Donoghue’s output – a treadmill desk

Talking of Emma Donoghue’s visit, she sat down to write at a desk with a certain, dewy-eyed nostalgia. For Ms Donoghue has been, ever since January 2013, standing at a “treadmill desk” which allows her to work out and write fiction at the same time. The very same treadmill desk of which Victoria Beckham extolled the virtues, though Donoghue was well ensconced on hers by then. The point is to fend-off the effects of her two most time-consuming pursuits: writing and eating chocolate. It’s also where she wrote many of the scenes of her new novel, Frog Music, which will be launched with a flourish tomorrow, at an event that is free for the public (the London location will be kept secret ‘til the last minute). To sign up, go to www.billetto.co.uk.

What will beckett’s unpublished work show us?

It’s been a prolific year for writers returning from the dead. Or their unpublished manuscripts, at least. Samuel Beckett is to join the likes of Tennessee Williams and Jack Kerouac with the release of his hitherto unpublished story, Echo’s Bones. Until next week it remains a heavily guarded secret. Faber, its publisher, has issued the following teaser on its website: “Echo’s Bones was intended by Samuel Beckett to form the “recessional” or end-piece of his early collection of interrelated stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, published in 1934. The story was... held back from inclusion in the published volume.” We wait on tenterhooks.

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