THE BLOG

Why the Prison Book Ban Will Lead to Higher Levels of Reoffending

25/03/2014 15:13 GMT | Updated 25/05/2014 10:59 BST

The ban on prisoners being sent books has, quite rightly, provoked outrage. A host of leading writers have criticised the move and the Howard League for Penal Reform described the plan as "nasty and bizarre."

Ministers have attempted to play down the row by saying that prisoners will still have access to books. That may be the case, but the bottom line is that their access will be severely rationed.

I have read much in the past day or so about how ridiculous, uncivilised, unfair, nasty and bizarre this policy is and I echo those sentiments. As the author Mark Haddon, a leading critic of the policy, pointed out, even prisoners in Guantanamo Bay can receive books as gifts.

Hopefully this incident will shine a light on the broader issues that affect prison education. My union, the University and College Union (UCU), represents the people that teach in our prisons and restricting access to books exposes a worrying lack of understanding at the top level of government about how prison works, or about how it could work.

Research shows that prisoners who do not take part in education are three times more likely to be reconvicted than those that do. So put bluntly, education is the key to cutting down reoffending. Denying prisoners access to education is not just vindictive, it is incredibly counterproductive.

This latest policy comes on the back of a report last month from UCU and the Institute of Education that warned the power of prison educators to help offenders turn their lives around was being squandered due to constant retendering for teaching contracts.

The study painted a picture of a highly motivated, well-educated and experienced prison education workforce who report that their working environment is being made less conducive to their core role of helping prisoners turn their lives around.

Prison educators flagged up high workloads, limited opportunity for progression, lack of professional autonomy, lack of teaching resources and training opportunities, and the low status of prison education as major concerns. They also mentioned the difficulty many have in accessing online resources, which makes the banning of the trusty book even more ridiculous.

Prison education is challenging; lots of prisoners have low levels of educational attainment and many are unwilling to be open about their lack of education or seek to redress the problem. Furthermore, things like the frequent movement of prisoners and teaching in a context where security is paramount make delivering education increasingly difficult.

However, the evidence shows that prison education works and is effective in cutting reoffending. Our prisons should focus on that positive and be geared towards making education more accessible. Books are a key building block of education and vital in efforts to cut reoffending rates.

Ministers cannot hide behind the excuse that prisoners will still be able to buy books from the private firms that now run prison shops. If they really think that prisoners are going to forego essentials such as toothpaste, phone cards, clothes, coffee etc and use half their weekly wage to buy a book then they are again exposing themselves as incredibly out of touch with what happens in prison.

We all count the cost when people go back and forth through a revolving door of incarceration and ministers should be doing all they can to stop it.

Sally Hunt is the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU)