Prisons have been in the news recently, the focus usually being on problems such as rioting, overcrowding and the need for new super-prisons to accommodate a growing prison population. The priority is usually to sound tough, yet on occasion, politicians and policy makers punctuate their tough talk with ideas of rehabilitation and reform. The principle means through which rehabilitation and reform can be made is through education within prisons, on this many agree. Yet in spite of widespread agreement about the importance of education, the transformative role that books and libraries in prisons can play is often overlooked.
Britain has some of the highest reoffending rates in Europe. 46% of adults are convicted within one year of release. For those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 60%. Over two-thirds (68%) of under 18-year-olds are convicted within a year of release. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals cite figures that show that an ex-prisoner is 80% less likely to reoffend if they can return to work immediately upon release, but 40% of released prisoners have such low literacy that they are automatically ineligible for almost all jobs.
Putting in place a system of education which improves the literacy of offenders as well as equipping them with the right skills to succeed in society upon their release only makes sense. This is why prison libraries are so important. They can act as a means through which inmates can improve and build their spiritual, social and emotional wellbeing. Yet during a time in which public services are being cut, prison libraries are often the first to suffer and the last to get noticed.
I spoke to several individuals within my own local community who have recently left prison about their experiences using prison library services. The picture was mixed. One former prisoner told me about how during his stay in prison he would use books in the library to 'keep myself occupied whilst inside'. He told me that in this particular prison 'they had loads of books, you could also order newspapers every day, but it all changed in a different prison'. Another spoke of books being 'old and used, normally they were donations from the local library, books that they didn't want'. When I asked one former inmate about his experience of the library in prison, the answer was pretty blunt and straightforward. 'Prison library? It wasn't a major part of our time inside, I barely remember it'.
Yet prison libraries ought to be given much more prominence within prisons, not only because of their means to rehabilitate, but also because they can help create a sense of community, giving those behind bars an insight into contemporary debates on issues taking place in the outside world. This doesn't mean that It's simply enough to ensure a stock of books, prisons must also make sure that stock is kept up to date and diverse enough to meet the varied needs and interests of inmates. From speaking to those who had spent time in prison, it is clear that the quality of prison libraries varies from prison to prison, an issue that needs addressing to ensure all have an equal chance at rehabilitation.
Many of those who successfully fought to overturn Chris Grayling's 'book ban' thought that the matter was settled, that somehow prisoners would now automatically have rights to books and subsequently an education and the chance to turn their lives around. Talk of books for prisoners subsided. Yet the reality is that prisoners still face an uphill struggle to ensure that they have access to quality books, made all the more difficult by cuts to prison staff which has meant on occasions that they are unable to attend the library because there is no one to escort them.
When we think of prisons, the word 'crisis' often comes to mind, yet very rarely does this sense of crisis extend to the idea of prison libraries. If we are to reduce rates of reoffending we cannot afford to view well stocked prison libraries as a mere luxury that prisoners can survive without. They are the means through which many will be able to equip themselves to turn their lives around.