Reading in prisons – why it matters

The Ministry of Justice’s decision to ban serving prisoners from receiving books from outside is one of those deeply (and I suspect, often, deliberately) polarising interventions which will be as enthusiastically welcomed by some as it will be roundly condemned by others.

Those who see the purpose of prison as being wholly or in large part punitive will applaud the justice secretary for taking steps to make the prison experience less ‘cushy’. Those who see prison as being, in the main, about rehabilitation and reintegration into society will see this as, at best, an unnecessary and unhelpful ‘extra punishment’ and, at worst, as a serious infringement of prisoners’ human rights.

This is a hugely divisive issue and I think it’s important to write about it in a way that does not make it more so (we won’t get far here without informed public debate). If you (or someone close to you) have been a victim of serious crime it can be difficult to think of prison in terms of rehabilitation, particularly in cases where the prisoner has shown no sign of remorse (the thought that prison might give offenders the chance to better themselves, to advance in life, can be hard to take). The apparently kneejerk sympathy of people on the left can open up old wounds. People like to see politicians being ‘tough’ on prisoners and, while it can be easy to point to the often highly calculated (and frequently counterproductive) nature of this kind of posturing, I don’t think we should be so quick to dismiss those who applaud it.

Nevertheless, I think we need to be realistic. Most of the people serving prison sentences will at some point return to society. They will live in the same cities, towns and villages as other people, work alongside them, send their children to the same schools and vote in the same elections. It makes sense therefore that we, as a society, take steps to ensure that when people do emerge from the prison system they do so better equipped to play a useful part in their communities than they were when they entered it.

This is why education and access to reading materials in prisons is so important, and why restricting this is likely to prove, in the long term, extremely costly, both socially and economically. Prisons are full of offenders with very low educational levels, often lacking the most basic literacy and numeracy skills. These people will need help if they are to successfully reintegrate into society. To send people back into society without that help is to send them out with no hope of anything better for themselves, and makes recidivism much more likely. It is also a huge waste of resources.

It is unsurprising that education reduces the risk of reoffending (though, evidently, its impact depends also on interventions in other areas, for example, in employment and housing, and of course in access to education once people leave prison). Access to books and other reading materials is particularly important. Last year, Adults Learning reported on the impact of a prison reading project which has been supporting reading groups behind bars for 14 years (led by Sarah Turvey and Jenny Hartley, of the University of Roehampton). It showed how involvement in reading groups not only improved people’s literacy but also opened up new horizons for prisoners, built empathy, strengthened family and community ties and gave offenders hope for the future, improved confidence and the ambition to do something more useful with their lives after prison. A quote from one of the participants indicates how reading and participation in reading groups helped prisoners develop a sense of community, of shared values, and a different appreciation of the people around them:

For one hour a month the walls of my confinement crumble to dust and I feel respected. Not just by fellow inmates, but by citizens from the wider community, members of the society into which I’ll one day be released – by the two women who run the group, and by the visitors they invite. For one hour a month my opinion is valid, I am listened to and others care what I have to say. In the book group, everyone is given a voice, all have an equal say. For one hour a month, I am allowed to be the individual I used to be and am not defined by my crime.

It is difficult to think of any other activity that could give people in prison such a sense of other possibilities, a chance to rethink and revaluate (themselves and their relationships to others), to put themselves in others’ shoes, while also developing critical basic skills which everyone needs in order to function adequately in society. As Sarah Turvey and Jenny Hartley argue, it is the development of ‘imaginative capital’ – the capacity to think differently, particularly about other people – which makes reading so uniquely valuable.

It’s easy to see why people react so strongly on issues like this – and why the thought of offenders gaining advantage of some sort while in the prison system is offensive or hurtful to some. But we must also realise that offenders are a part of society too and, with a very large and growing prison population (and high rates of recidivism), we simply cannot afford, either economically or socially, to support a prison system which does people only harm. Rehabilitation and reintegration must be important dimensions of any prison system, and education must be a key part of that. Restricting the opportunities for offenders to learn, to develop empathy, to connect with the wider community, really doesn’t make too much sense.

Ensuring an inclusive, informed and unclouded debate on these issues is perhaps another challenge for lifelong learning.