Brixton poet and author Alex Wheatle, the ‘Brixton Bard’, speaks out about the proposed restrictions on access to books in prisons.
Following the 1981 Brixton uprising I spent a short spell in prison in the summer of that year. As I received my coarse denim prison jacket and jeans from a warden at Wormwood Scrubs, all kinds of bad scenarios were swirling around in my head. What helped me through my sentence was fiction. From the moment I picked up CLR James’ The Black Jacobins, I never looked back. Indeed, my hunger for narrative almost matched my hunger for food.
When I had served my time I emerged a more educated, articulate young man. I had gained knowledge of Imperial Russia, medieval Scotland, 1920s Harlem, the ghettoes of Victorian London and so much more.
So I am appalled at the latest edict from Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, which forbids prisoners to accept books sent to them from friends and family. Isn’t the whole point of prison to reform and rehabilitate a character? I know from not just my experience of being incarcerated but also by numerous visits I have made to prisons and Young Offenders Institutions that reading fiction and non-fiction can make a difference. Doesn’t society need inmates who are better read and have an improved understanding of all kinds of people who populate our society? The vast majority of those who are now serving time will be our neighbours one day.
I have no doubt that Chris Grayling is playing to his conservative base and his ruling is self-defeating and at best, spiteful. It serves the social order no purpose and restricts personal growth. If the Justice Secretary is so concerned about the contraband that may be hidden in parcels containing books sent in by friends and family, may I suggest that he reforms prison post-rooms and the staff who work in them.