Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Time to Kill... a Time to Read

Aside from all the current controversy over the ban on sending in parcels (including books) to prisoners in British prisons, reading does play a major part in helping inmates pass the time. Although illiteracy remains a significant challenge for many cons, particularly younger men whose education was severely disrupted when they were children, most prisoners can read, although not all choose to do so.

While I was in prison myself, I recall the sense of frustration across the wing when the weekly library session was suddenly cancelled with no warning. We'd be lined up by the main spur gate waiting for the duty screw to come and unlock us for the 20-minute visit. Young and old alike were queuing, some balancing a precarious pile of six books (the usual maximum loan) in their arms, others making use of a spare net laundry bag to carry their reading material over their shoulders like a cartoon burglar's swag sack.

It was usually a bad sign if the escort officer was late. The chat would inevitably start. "I bet the bastards have cancelled it - again!" or "Someone's probably kicked off on B-wing." All too often this was the case and if the spur office was manned, there might be a quick phone call to the library - which was on the other side of the prison - and it would be confirmed. "Sorry lads, library's off for today." At this, we dispirited cons would shake our heads collectively and trudge back to our pads (cells) grumbling all the way.

A cancelled library session not only meant losing the chance to change books and find new ones to fill spare time for the coming week, but it also involved a loss of other opportunities: a gym session or exercise out in the fresh air. Prison is often about making small, but significant choices. Library sessions always clashed with exercise and gym, so sacrifices had to be made. A last minute cancellation was a double blow to morale as the chance to participate in other activities had been lost.

I've written elsewhere on this Blog about the C-cat establishment where weekly library visits were cancelled with monotonous regularity. During one particular month we only managed to get to the library once. This annoyed me so much that I actually filled in a COMP 1 (complaint form) to the governor. A 'custodial manager' (what the Service now calls a principal officer) did have the decency to reply with an apology, but the explanation was simply that "operational issues" had to take priority. This probably meant either staff shortages or that inmates on another wing had kicked off around the same time as our library session.

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits for me of being re-categorised as a D-cat (after three appeals) and getting a transfer to an open prison was the freedom to visit a reasonably well-stocked library whenever I had free time. If any reader who has not experienced prison thinks that such things don't matter much, then they are wrong. The library at my D-cat was well-run and the civilian librarian who ran it still ranks as one of the most decent human beings I encountered while I was inside. He treated everyone - staff and prisoner alike - as a customer of equal worth and potential. And that really means something in prison, particularly for lifers and long-termers who may have spent the last 20 years being treated like scum.

This library was almost always packed (unless there was a football match on the games field in the good weather). Prisoners' behaviour was impeccable: no smoking in the stacks, no chewing gum, no vandalism. I always think that one of the main arguments in favour of open prisons is that they offer a chance for inmates who have served long sentences to acclimatise back to 'normality' before actually being released and being treated as a customer, rather than as a con, is an important part of the 'decompression' process. It's good practice ahead of returning to the real world beyond the gate. 


  1. I suggest a book swap between cons whenever library time is cancelled

    1. Thanks for your comment. Of course, in practice this happens all the time but there are risks involved. It is strictly against prison rules to lend or borrow any item between prisoners, so it could get you what is called a 'red warning' under the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system. Two of those in a three month period and you are in real trouble.

      Another problem is that if the con you've loaned a library book to damages or loses it, then you carry the can as it is on your ticket. You might be forced to pay for a new copy under the recent rules on damage to prison property.

      The other risk is that any prisoner is liable to be transferred out to another prison or to the Block (segregation unit) at any time without notice. This means that the book could get lost or shipped in his property to another nick. Again, it's a disciplinary case and you might have to pay for it or even get charged and hauled up before a governor for punishment. These are real risks prisoners can face in helping each other out!