Why reading books in prison can set you free

A former youth offender-turned-writer reflects on the prison books ban. 

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It was January 1986 and my mother was in the Penguin bookshop in York, lost and distressed. She had just been to visit me at Armley prison in Leeds and she knew I would need more than prayers to keep me from going under.

An assistant came over to her and she explained that her 17-year-old son had just been given 18 months’ youth custody for a botched robbery. She told him I was a bit alternative, and he picked out Waterland by Graham Swift. She sent the book to the young offender institution to which I’d been transferred, Deerbolt, in County Durham. Swift’s brooding alternative history had me gripped.

My mother returned to the bookshop the next week. This time the assistant suggested Less Than Zero, which told the story of a group of damaged Californian rich kids. I’d never read a novel in which the characters took drugs and listened to indie music and I devoured it in one sitting.

Every Friday the senior officer on Unit 3 handed over a parcel sent by my mother, which contained Melody Maker, the NME and a Picador paperback. This parcel was my air supply. Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden unsettled me from the first sentence: “I did not kill my father, but I sometimes felt I had helped him on his way.” The prose was flat and unemotional, the story so close to the bone that it took me a week to read rather than one night.

Three months into my sentence, I wrote to my friend Maria: “I’ve already read about 25 this year whereas I hardly read any books before I came in.” These gifts of books helped my mother, too: she could believe that good might come out of my time away.

I probably wasn’t the typical Deerbolt inmate. Few of its 400 inmates were fortunate enough to receive fat parcels. But books were still highly valued in an institution committed to rehabilitation. Literature, and literacy, were central to this idea of transformation and Deerbolt had a library of several thousand books. We were allowed up to three volumes a week and ample time to browse, a luxury that inmates in today’s prisons don’t seem to enjoy.

My experiences seem to belong to a very different age. The culture of the criminal justice system is far less forgiving than it was in the mid-1980s. Even in the Thatcher years, when rehabilitative ideals were falling out of favour, no one at the Home Office would have regarded books as an indulgence or a luxury to be withheld from prisoners. No one would have viewed books solely as a security problem.

On 5 December at the high court in London, Mr Justice Collins declared unlawful the blanket ban by the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, on sending books to prisoners. A spokeswoman for the prison service called it a “surprising judgment” and said that even though the service would work to fulfil the judicial ruling, “we will not do anything that would create a new conduit for smuggling drugs and extremist materials into our prisons”.

We should know from history (and Grayling is a history graduate) that we become a little less human when books are attacked. We should support any creative alternative to the dominant prison culture: boredom, hopelessness, violence, self-centred pettiness. Books cannot take the blame for the prevalence of drugs or religious extremism in our prisons; they can help create empathy, encourage thoughtfulness and reflection and represent the possibility of change. I like to think I was changed a little when I opened that parcel and read the first few pages of The Cement Garden.

Kester Aspden is the author of “The Hounding of David Oluwale” (Vintage, £7.99)

This article appears in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution