It pays to be nasty. At least, so Britain’s current government appears to have calculated, by deciding that there’s electoral dividends in barring prisoners from receiving books sent by relatives or others.
The rules imposed by UK justice secretary Chris Grayling have not exactly passed unchallenged. “This is part of an increasingly irrational punishment regime orchestrated by Chris Grayling that grabs headlines but restricts education or rehabilitation,” asserts Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, the UK’s longest-established penal reform charity. “Book banning is in some ways the most despicable and nastiest element of the new rules. Prison libraries are supplied and funded by local authorities and have often been surprisingly good, but so many libraries are now closing and cutting costs that inevitably the first service to feel the pinch is in prison.”
“People in prison need rehabilitation, not retribution,” tweeted singer Billy Bragg. “Coalition ban guitars, now deny prisoners books.” And novelist novelist and PR professional Tim Finch contrasts the new UK policy with Brazil, where “prisoners can get four days off their sentence for every book they read.” The Prison Reform Trust, meanwhile, has described the new rules as “petty and mean.”
Oh, and anyone who needs to hear the other side of the story can read Chris Grayling’s full speech to the 2013 Conservative Party conference, where – in between frequent hits at the previous Labour government’s record on crime – he argues: “I promised you that this Government would give you a better criminal justice system. A system that hard-working, law-abiding people can have confidence in. An end to soft justice.”
For anyone who needs actual proof to underline the brain-dead self-destructive stupidity of this vindictiveness, Neil Gaiman has already pointed out in his Reading Agency lectures that one of the single most effective crime prevention policies any government can do is to foster reading and literacy among its population. The UK government, however, seems to have decided on the opposite approach. After all, the more crimes are committed, the more electoral rewards you can reap for being tough on crime, right?
Sound a cynical and irrational calculation to you? Well, others have concluded the same about Grayling’s new policy. “Punishing reading is as nasty as it is bizarre,” Crook observes.
Editor’s note: I completely agree with Paul that this is just a bizarre policy. And note that the US clearly doesn’t have similar policies, based on this article I wrote last year about the court upholding the rights of prisoners to read werewolf porn. While my article makes light of the specific book in question, I am grateful that, at least for now, my country doesn’t block the ability of our prisoners to read.