What prison book groups taught me about books

Perhaps you shouldn’t get too idealistic about prisoners’ interest in books. The first time I visited a prison to talk to a book club – it was one in West Yorkshire, in about 2008 – I asked the librarian what her most popular books were. “Ones about antiques, and true-life crime,” she said. “Especially Martina Cole.”

True-life crime I understood, but about antiques I was naïve. I embarrassed to say that I asked her if antiques were an interest that prisoners discovered while locked up.

“I wouldn’t say they discovered it,” she said. “I think it’s more research for when they get out, if you see what I mean.”

I used to go into men’s prisons to talk about writing – how I did it and how they might start, or if they had already started, develop their interest. It was as part of an English PEN scheme. Some days were hard going, some days were hard then brilliant when we found some common ground (I realize it sounds a terrible cliché, but with younger blokes it helped if you could talk about hip hop lyrics as well as prose), and some discussions were so interesting and enlightening I never wanted them to end.

It was certainly different to talking to book groups on the outside. “That Yorkshire accent were crap, and if I’d heard you reading it I wouldn’t have bothered to read your book,” one bloke from Leeds told me after listening to me read dialogue from my own book, spoken by people I knew.

“But one of the people speaking is my dad,” I said. “That’s how he talks. He’s from near Barnsley.”

“Well he had a crap accent an’ all, then.”

At another talk, this time in the Midlands, a big bloke in his 30s fixed me with A Look and said, “Can I ask you something, Richard? Do I frighten you?”

“Not really. You’re not being threatening and I don’t think you’d kick me in in front of officers in a library, why do you ask?”

“I just wondered if I made you feel afraid,” he said.

Another prisoner said to me later that a lot of the men thought about that, because it the ability to frighten another individual was the only power they had left. That was one thing I learned about men in prison.

Another was that a large number end up there because they are self-medicating with drugs after being abused as kids.

Another was that while there are genuine villains (they tended not to come to the book group meetings), a good half of the inmates wouldn’t be there if they weren’t on drugs (see above), or hadn’t had friends who were criminals, or could keep away from friends who dragged them back into crime when they came out of jail.

To say all that isn’t to be a hand-wringing liberal, it is to state facts.

It was that last group, the men who came out with good intentions but ended up being dragged back into re-offending that I have been thinking about since I read about the ban on sending books to prisoners. When I first started doing the talks and discussions, I was quite surprised at how thoughtful and intelligent some of the discussion could be, and how interested in education many of the men were. I’d say at least a dozen in each group saw prison as place where they could make up for some of the learning they had missed in their youth.

Once, in Wandsworth, a middle-aged man referred in a discussion to the philosophy course he was studying. I asked if he would keep it up when he got out, and he sighed. “The thing is, Richard, none of us here will do these sorts of things – “ he meant the book group and the courses – “if  we were outside. Because you go out, and you mean to do well and keep out of trouble, but it’s the same people around you, and you try, but it sucks you back in. So you keep going in here, and hope you get far enough into [the study] that when you get out, you can keep away from [the trouble].”

That is a genuine, if slightly paraphrased, quote. I have always remembered it because it made me think well, that’s the hope, isn’t it?

And that’s the hope that is undermined by banning prisoners from receiving books from the outside. Of course some of those books might have been about antiques, and some of them might be used for smuggling in illicit substances, but that doesn’t seem to be the motive – there are searches, after all.

It seems that books are included in a list of banned gifts not because they are books, but because they are one kind of gift. The offence and error is in treating books as objects like socks or underwear, as things to bargain with. As a society we are more used to treating them with reverence, and exempting them, because they symbolize the free sharing of knowledge; we do not tax them, we are wary of censoring them, as individuals we give them to secondhand shops rather than throw them away.

To treat them as commodities goes against that, and in doing so it fails not just those prisoners for whom books, reading and study can be a means of rehabilitation, but everyone else as well. Because allowing those prisoners to receive books is not some sort of indulgence, it is making them less likely to reoffend when they are released. That’s not liberal hand-wringing either, it’s a plain fact that should be obvious to anyone – even to a politician.