Today, the writers of English PEN have joined with The Howard League on Penal Reform for an unusually dramatic protest at Westminster: they are holding up books (copies of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment) and bearing silent witness while Justice Secretary Chris Grayling faces questions from the justice select committee.
It’s the latest in a series of events organised to promote the Books For Prisoners campaign, which is calling on ministers to overturn the new rules in which prisoners cannot receive books from friends and family. (They may only read books from prison libraries, which tend to be poorly stocked and rarely open due to budget cuts.)
Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This dignified show of support for our campaign highlights the distress that has been caused by the draconian Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme in prisons. It is a policy that requires urgent review. As families and friends are now forbidden from sending basic items into prison, prisoners are lying in overcrowded cells, wearing dirty clothes, with nothing to do and possibly not even a book to read.
“When leading authors asked for an opportunity to raise their concerns over this issue, the Justice Secretary refused to meet with them. It is regrettable that it takes a concerted display of Dostoyevsky novels to get his attention at a time when there is growing unrest in prison and an alarming rise in suicides behind bars.”
Leading writer Kathy Lette, who supports the campaign, said: “Books are not a ‘reward’ but a staple, like bread and water. I feel passionately about giving prisoners access to books not just because I come from convict stock but also because I left school at 16, so books have been my education.
“Reading is the route to self-improvement and a way out of crime. In a country which gave the world our best writers, from Shakespeare and Dickens to Austen and JK Rowling, depriving prisoners of books is pathetically philistine.”
Lette was in Chagford last year as a speaker at the Chagword literary festival.