During the course of the ongoing public debate over access to books for prisoners, one of the oft repeated mantras by members of Team Grayling is that all prisoners have access to prison libraries. This argument is, to say the least, rather disingenuous and relies on a lack of first-hand knowledge about what goes on within prison walls.
It is true that all prisons have a library. However, the crucial issues are quality of books on the shelves and whether prisoners can actually access the library.
Having served my sentence as a prisoner at four different prisons, I believe I have pretty good first-hand experience to contribute to this debate. In closed prisons, library access is often limited to a maximum of one 20-minute session per week. However, staff shortages and security alerts occur frequently and library visits are usually the first activity to be cancelled. At one C-cat prison I remember one particular month when we only managed a single 20-minute session because of “operational constraints”. It became increasingly rare to have a weekly session: one or more was almost always cancelled without notice.
Moreover, because prisoners in closed establishments (the vast majority of UK prisons) are now spending more time “behind their doors” (locked in their cells), library visits are often timetabled for the same slot as gym and exercise on the yard, so many inmates now have to make a choice between fresh air, trying to keep fit and healthy or visiting the library.
I also have recent experience of the inter-library loan system. At two B-cat prisons, this facility did not exist in practice (or, I believe, even on paper). At another prison only about 20 percent of books requested ever actually arrived, and that could take around a month. Prisoners making requests had often been transferred to another establishment before the actual book arrived.
Quality of library stock is very variable. At HMP North Sea Camp (an open prison) there is a decent library and a very committed civilian librarian who does his best to ensure prisoners have access to recent books and who speeds up inter-library loan orders. Being an open establishment (no cells), prisoners have access to the library throughout the day and evening seven days a week, whenever they aren’t at work. This is of massive benefit to retired prisoners, those studying for qualifications or those who can’t work owing to disability or infirmity. However, those facilities are very exceptional. Most closed prison libraries offer a dispiriting choice of cheap true crime paperbacks and books about football.
The real impact of the new IEP rules (PSI 30/2013) is on those prisoners – and there is a surprising number – who genuinely want to improve their education and skills ahead of release. Prison education departments now cannot offer any courses above Level 2 (GCSE equivalent) owing to funding cuts. Any other courses, professional or vocational now need to be funded by the prisoner (or via the Prisoners’ Education Trust or other charities). Previously, family, friends or outside organisations, such as the National Extension College, could send in books (or at least purchase them via Amazon for direct delivery). This has now all been banned and prisoners have to use average prison wages – around £10-12 per week – to buy any books that they need. Prison libraries are simply not equipped to provide long-term loans of current textbooks to prisoners.
The end result, in my experience, is an undermining of one of the key mission objectives of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS): namely reducing re-offending. Mr Grayling’s politically motivated mismanagement of the prison system is actively discouraging prisoners from improving their own knowledge, education and skills, and thereby reducing the chances of successful rehabilitation and resettlement upon release. In other words, a massive own goal.