An Open Letter to Chris Grayling by Les Back

photo-6Last year saw the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling introduce a new prison regime that included a vindictive ban on prisoners being sent books. The ban has been widely condemned and legally challenged. In this post Les Back from Goldsmiths College shares the letter he has written to Grayling criticising the ban. He included a copy of Escape Attempts with the letter, as part of the Howard League’s project to send books to the conservative politician with the request that they be passed on to prison libraries.  

Dear Chris Grayling,

I am very pleased to send you a copy of Stan Cohen and Laurie Taylor’s Escape Attempts and request that you sent it on to a prison so that prisoners will be able to read it.

The book is not actually as impudent a choice as the title suggests. It is not literally a ‘how to’ guide for scaling the prison walls. Rather, what Cohen and Taylor document in this classic study in sociology is the deadening nature of prison routines and the importance of the life of the mind in imaging an alternative future into existence. I have worked in prisoner education initiatives for over ten years through a scheme at Goldsmiths, University of London called Open Book. It is an aptly titled initiative in my view. I am merely an academic volunteer and visit potential students inside prison, many of whom gain access to higher education through their involvement. In the last year I have also visited one of our students who was recalled to Wormwood Scrubs, so I have some direct experience of what reading means for prisoners behind bars.

For more than a decade it has become progressively difficult to get books into prison. I have documented this here in an on-line book called Academic Diary if you are interested (see http://www.academic-diary.co.uk/page.php?entryID=18). As a result of government policy several books I have posted to students have been impounded. This has been documented in a series of podcasts which you can listen to for free on Goldsmiths website http://magiclantern.gold.ac.uk/podcasts/sociology/sonicpostcards/postcard4done.mp3.

As you know the ban on sending books was introduced a year ago as part of the incentives and earned privileges changes. I have witnessed the transformative power of reading and education for prisoners and former prisoners. We know from our experience at Open Book – but also from existing research – that learning reduces reoffending and helps animate dead time into something that can be productive, not just for prisoners, but also for society as a whole.

You have said that books are a security concern because they can be used to smuggle drugs into a prison. You must know that this is utter nonsense. As the Howard League has pointed out there is no evidence that drugs have ever been smuggled into a prison through the pages of a book. The Prison Governors Association and the Prison Officers Association have both dismissed the idea that books constitute a security issue.

It is my experience that reading offers students an imaginative escape but it also provides an opportunity to envision a different future. Isn’t this precisely what you – as the Minister of Justice – should be seeking i.e. that people who have a history of offending embrace a different kind of future when they leave prison. There are very low incidents of re-offending amongst students on the Open Book Project. Higher Education quite simply works for them because it creates a structure not only for learning but also within which a better life can be made.

Your book ban is making it harder for prisoners to access education’s transformative power. I have witnessed this at close quarters and urge you to review this policy and once again allow the magic of books back into prisons.

Professor Les Back


Categories: Rethinking The World

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2 replies »

  1. Your otherwise excellent letter is weakened by the statement about books never having been used to smuggle drugs into a prison. I don’t know how the Howard League did their research but, as someone who works in a prison the statement is utterly false. The POA and PGA are correct in saying that books are not a security risk – but that is because they were searched thoroughly not because they weren’t used as smuggling devices.

  2. I take your point and stand corrected as you’ve witnessed this first hand. However, during the period when I was sending books to students through the post and they were getting through it seemed the security vetting procedure was actually very tough. Is this a matter of resources in a time of financial cuts in the prison service? The band on books just seems vindictive to me.

    You might be interested to listen to a interview with one of our students that has just been posted on the Goldsmiths website.

    http://magiclantern.gold.ac.uk/podcasts/sociology/sonicpostcards/lifeofthemind.mp3

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Les Back

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