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Wednesday 7th
posted by Morning Star in Features

JACK THE BLASTER talks to his friend behind bars about what it would have meant had Grayling’s plans to ban books being brought into prisons not been blocked

I RECENTLY visited a man who has been behind bars for four decades last week.

He’s currently residing at Her Majesty’s pleasure at Swaleside prison on the Isle of Sheppey.

The setting was like something out of Great Expectations — the approach to the category B prison takes you along the Kent estuary. 

It was shrouded in mist, its high concrete walls as foreboding as the floating hulks of the Victorian period. 

It was freezing cold, and the winter scene looked just as Charles Dickens described it as Magwitch emerged from the marshes and forced Pip to help him break his shackles.

Our conversation was timely, as 24 hours later Mr Justice Collins issued a ruling saying that Tory Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s vindictive plan to ban books being sent in was unlawful, and my friend spoke of how important reading material was to him. 

I asked him about the ban and he told me he already had experience of what it is like to be deprived of a book.

He has a bit of a reputation in the prison world — he has escaped from a high-security institute in the past, causing some embarrassment to the prison service — and he believes it means he is not always treated with dignity.

He told me that during his most recent move — the prison service shifts him from one institute to another, and he could count at least 18 prisons he had now been banged up in — the officers smashed his reading glasses. 

This was a few months ago, and he’s been unable to read since. It means, by default, he knows first hand of the effect such a ban would have.

“It’s driven me mad,” he says dolefully.

‘It’s one of the few things that people have here. It is one way of escaping, without shinning up a drain pipe or knotting together sheets. But it is more than that. It’s a crucial way for prisoners to create a new worldview, one that leads them away from crime. 

“Books aren’t just a pleasant way for us to pass the time. They have helped me and others understand our situation and our place in this world.”

Grayling had said one of his reasons for such a mindless rule was people using books to send in drugs or other contraband. 

I suspect he had watched too many repeats of The Shawshank Redemption, where the rock hammer Tim Robbins’s character used to carve a 100-foot tunnel was stashed in a Bible — fantastical nonsense, the stuff of something like the Count of Monte Cristo or the Prisoner of Zenda and not the real world.

Judge Collins put the kibosh on the plan. Unable, of course, to go back to my friend behind bars and ask him for a reaction, I spoke to writer and former prisoner John Healy. 

Healy is the author of the modern classic, The Grass Arena. Published in 1988, it tells the story of his life — a world of street drinking and petty crime leading to long spells banged up. 

It reveals how, by chance, he shared a cell with the notorious burglar the Brighton Fox, who also happened to be an avid chess player. 

Healy was hooked, and believes the game, alongside a newfound love of books, helped him turn straight. 

Journalist Erwin James, who wrote an anonymous column for the Guardian while behind bars, cites Healy’s book as a crucial element in his own eventual rehabilitation, and Healy echoes his thoughts of the power of the book when you are behind bars. 

He was adamant that banning literature being sent in was a hugely counterproductive measure.

He told me he thought the judge’s ruling was “great news,” and what he then said was revealing in in terms of how Grayling really approaches concepts of punishment, redemption and what the prison service should really be about.

“It is obvious that books can play a key part in a prisoner’s rehabilitation — they did for me,” he says. 

“They were a catalyst. Books helped me come to terms with how I had lived my life.

“It is very hard to be both a reader and a villain. Reading helps you understand the world around you and relate to how your behaviour effects others. It should be encouraged as much as possible.”

He added that the book ban made it clear the Grayling did not place prisoner reform at the heart of justice policy-making.

He says: “This shows Grayling considers prison to be primarily about punishment, pure and simple.”

I have discussed this with people who have experience of being locked up. They say prisons should be encouraging every person convicted of a crime to stick their noses in books. 

It should be seen as a crucial part on the road to freedom and redemption, with suggested set texts made available, tailored for people of varying degrees of reading ability. 

Having a tome like the Jail Diary of Albie Sachs — the story of the South African freedom fighter’s attempts to keep sane while locked up in solitary confinement by the racist apartheid regime — would surely provide much-needed solace to those behind bars, and give them a tool to stir their imagination and therefore consider their incarceration.

But such humanity and progressiveness is not, as my friend in prison tells me, a cornerstone of the British prison regime. 

As Grayling’s ill-thought-out and now unlawful policy shows, it doesn’t seem to be something the Justice Minister is particularly interested in.