Books Behind Bars

by Luke Billingham

Haven Distribution has been sending books to prisoners since 1996. Our founder and Chair, Lee, started our work by packing and sending out books from his North London flat. Now, 22 years later, a few things have changed: we’re based in the East of London not in the North, we’ve got a small ramshackle office, and we’re run by a handful of volunteers, rather than just the one. Other than that, though, much has stayed the same: we’re still guided by the simple purpose of sending books to as many prisoners as we can.

We now send around 2000 books a year, and we’ve sent at least one or two books into every adult prison in the UK. We get books into prisons in two ways: we purchase and send in educational books for prisoners who are studying courses, and we have catalogues of free books (donated to us by publishers) from which any prisoner can request books. Over the course of our history we’ve sent tens of thousands of books into prisons, and have supported hundreds of different courses, ranging from carpentry to criminology, from mathematics to motor mechanics.

The “book ban” and access to books in prison

In 2014, then Justice Minister Chris Grayling infamously instituted what became known as the “book ban” – restricting what could be sent into prisons in this country, including books. It attracted enormous criticism, and did not last long. It’s now been a few years since the ban was lifted, and there’s far less conversation about books in prison. There’s a danger that some may assume all prisoners can now get hold of whatever books they want, which is far from the case. Firstly, not all prisoners have family or friends who are able and willing to send books in for them. For instance, a prisoner at Wandsworth recently wrote to us after receiving some books, saying: “I cannot tell you how much it means to be able to receive the books. I have no family in the UK so your books mean so much to me.”

Secondly, prison libraries – the main source of books for the vast majority – vary greatly, and they do not always have a good range of books, especially educational books. One inmate said to us recently in a letter: “The library provides books but usually they are damaged or just pulp fiction that is of little educational value”. On top of this, more expensive non-fiction books are usually reference-only, meaning they can only be accessed during inmates’ very limited time in the library.

The prison rules state that inmates should have a minimum of half an hour’s access to the library every two weeks, but in many cases they get even less than that, particularly when there aren’t enough officers to accompany them. “Library access is very erratic and prisoners who work hardly ever get to visit the library” – another recent letter. Particularly if you’re studying a course, limited access to the library and the lack of course books can cause huge difficulties. In this context, receiving books from us can have a significant impact on prisoners’ time inside.

Three ways books can make a difference in prisons

1. Aiding (self-)education

Most books we send in are educational books, in response to specific requests from individual prisoners. With prison education budgets tight, we provide a vital resource for prisoners’ study, particularly given the limitations of libraries. We have good relationships with prison tutors across the country, who often arrange the applications for their students so that they can receive course books they’d otherwise have no access to.

Courses in our prisons are being affected by officer shortages: a prison tutor recently told me that around 40% of their classes were being cancelled due to a lack of officers to accompany prisoners to education. If prisoners have books from us, which they own and can have with them in their cells, they can continue their studies whatever the state of the library, and however much they are kept from attending classes. They can pursue self-motivated, self-education, often the most transformative form of education there is.

Prisons are diverse places, in many ways, and books are one of the few things that can almost match the diversity of people. Literacy levels in our prisons are, on average, very low. Reflecting this, our most popular books are dictionaries, and we frequently receive letters highlighting the role our dictionaries have played in helping prisoners learn to read and write. There is also a significant population in our prisons who do not have English as their first language. We send in lots of bilingual dictionaries, helping prisoners to both progress in English courses and communicate on the wings. One letter from the Isle of Wight recently said: “Thank you so much for getting my dictionary for me. It is my pleasure because I need it always so I am feeling confidence with the dictionary. As you know English is my second language. I am very happy. Thanks.” Perhaps less well-known is the fact that there are also plenty of prisoners studying undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. There is great intellectual and academic potential in prisons, and books are a crucial tool for helping this potential to be realised. A man in Full Sutton wrote to us last year: “I have recently commenced my penultimate study module towards my BSc (Hons) Criminology & Psychology with the Open University. You have previously provided me with numerous books that have assisted me with my study… These have both been invaluable and helped me greatly.”

2. Supporting personal progress

Our Radio 4 appeal tells the story of Peter. He had been a serial re-offender, caught in the cycle of crime and imprisonment. Eventually, through a prison education department, he began voluntary work giving housing advice to other prisoners. He found out about Haven, and ordered books to help him in his work, and to assist him acquiring the relevant qualifications. The dictionary and Citizen’s Advice Guide that we sent him were the first books he’d ever owned. They helped him to get an NVQ Level 3 in Advice & Guidance, and on release he got a volunteering placement with St Giles Trust, and pursued a law course to specialise in housing.

Prisoners are often facing the most difficult time of their lives, and books can be an important source of strength for some. We received a letter from HMP Elmsley last month, saying: “If ‘knowledge is power’ then you have surely empowered me, at a time in my life when I have never felt more helpless.”

3. Prisons in crisis and bang-up

The disgraceful state of many of our prisons has attracted media attention over the past few years – overcrowding, riots, drugs, suicides, violence, escapes. There were more suicides and deaths in custody during 2016 than in any previous year on record. There was an average of nearly 70 assaults in English and Welsh prisons each day that year. In light of this, books can seem trivial. In many ways, these problems are of course more consequential and more urgent than books. But it’s important to remember the overall effect of these issues: they make it harder and harder for prisoners to have a safe and productive time in prison. In a more practical and concrete way, they also mean more and more prisoners are spending longer and longer banged up in their cells. This makes it vital for prisoners to have something meaningful and beneficial to do during their time locked up. Few things can be more meaningful or beneficial than self-education, and there’s no tool more effective for that – at least within a prison cell – than books.


Luke Bellingham is a trustee and volunteer with Haven Distribution.

Artwork: Clifford Harper

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