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UK – The book I’m sending a prisoner

This week, the government lifted the ban on sending books to prisoners in the UK. We ask former prisoners and relatives which titles they are planning to post to incarcerated friends and family – and why

Prison Reading Groups
 A reading group in Wandsworth Prison, south London. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Almost two years after the former justice secretary Chris Grayling banned prisoners from receiving parcels containing books, the ban has finally been lifted.

Writers flocked to join a campaign launched by the Howard League and English PEN, with Philip Pullman labelling the regulations “despicable”, and this week the final restrictions have been removed, leaving prisoners free to receive books directly from friends and family.

We asked five people which books they are planning to send and why.

prison memoirs

1. Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist by Alexander Berkman

Alex Cavendish writes at Prison UK: An Insider’s Blog. He will be sending Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist to a friend he met while they were both in prison in England. 

“I’m planning to send in books to a friend I met while I was in prison myself. He’s serving a 19-year sentence and is studying to keep himself sane. Books and education are his lifeline. In my view, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist is one of the best books ever written about the experience of imprisonment. Most prison libraries are full of books about imprisonment and criminals, which may sound counterintuitive! But one of the reasons that people who’ve experienced it value reading books about other people’s captivity is it helps them make sense of their situation.

“It was certainly my own experience – I wanted to see how other people had dealt with confinement, with being away from society, family, friends. Berkman’s book, which I came across after I had left prison, is one of the best explorations of what imprisonment really is and how he coped with it: it analyses the impact it had on him personally and the people around him. Berkman, a political prisoner, documents his own changes, how he became more concerned for other people and adopted more of a humanitarian stance. For instance, he went in being very homophobic, and came out much more tolerant and understanding of other people.

“For someone who’s serving a very long sentence like my friend, it’s a fascinating book to read, as it gives an insight into how prison can change people positively and open their minds to the whole variety of human experiences.”

Jacques Brel
 Jacques Brel. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

2. Sheet music and a book on Jacques Brel

Sandy’s son, 30, is serving an indeterminate sentence under the IPP (“imprisonment for public protection”) scheme, ruled against by the European court of human rights. [Sandy’s name has been changed]

“I’m planning to send musical-related books to my son. Until now, the theory and the practice of what was supposed to happen with books have been very different. The wing he has been on only has a small stock of books, which he can’t always access. When he arrived, there was no library whatsoever. It only reopened in January, and he can access it escorted, for 10 minutes once a week. In practice, it may not happen for weeks because of staff shortages. And it’s not practical to have to return books that you might want to study or refer to.

“When the ban on sending books was relaxed [in February], it was still difficult to order books for him from the outside, and many of the books he was interested in weren’t easy to find with the companies he could order through.

“He was caught under an IPP sentence very early on. He was released in 2013 and this is a recall. It has been very traumatic, and the book ban just made a very distressing situation far worse, it turned it into collective misery. He’s got Asperger’s, so emotionally this affected him greatly.

“He is interested in music and has been teaching himself to play the harmonica (since access to his guitar has also been impossible), so I will send him blues books [and sheet music]. And a book on Jacques Brel – he loves him.”


3. 1984 by George Orwell and Blind Faith by Ben Elton

Ian Harrison works as a teacher in Sutton. He will be sending these two books to a friend he met while they were both in prison. 

“My friend is serving a 22-year sentence. We met inside, he was 21 at the time. We write to each other a few times a year. He has now been inside for three or four years, and he is obviously isolated from social media in there – the world is going to be completely different when he comes out. This is one of the reasons I will send him 1984, just to show him have things have changed so much – but really, not at all. I read it when I was inside, and it’s still amazingly relevant.

“When I found it browsing the prison library back then, I’d been through quite a long investigation, and I was astounded at the information they knew about me, things that even people very close to me wouldn’t have been aware of (not because they were big secrets, but just never spoken about. The surveillance culture that we live in is shocking. What fascinated me about it is that it was such an excellent prediction about what might be happening. Blind Faith is basically the same story but with a more recent take.”

It’s interesting that, like other interviewees, you didn’t choose evasive, happy reads. Several ex-prisoners we’ve spoken to have said that books about incarceration are the most popular in prison libraries. Was that true for you? 

“I myself read a few books about incarceration (Shaun Attwood’s, for instance). Even when I knew conviction was imminent, I read Jeffrey Archer’s diaries to have an idea of what was coming. I didn’t read him when I was inside, but it was one of the most popular books in the library. I had my family send the book The Little Book of Prison: A Beginner’s Guide, written by a former inmate. It was reassuring to read other people’s experiences were the same as mine. You think: ‘Oh, it’s not just me. Everyone goes through the same sort of thing.’”


4. Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and William Golding’s Pincher Martin

Cat Lucas co-ordinated the Books to Prisoners Campaign for English PEN. She is planning to send these books to Barbara Gordon-Jones, a prisoner at HMP Send who prompted the successful judicial review of the strict restrictions imposed by Chris Grayling. Gordon-Jones is serving an indefinite sentence for arson and has a doctorate in English literature; she has been outspoken about the importance of allowing prisoners the right to read. 

“Following their successful judicial review of the restrictions, lawyer Samuel Genen sent us a list of books his client Barbara Gordon-Jones was unable to access in prison. Whilst it has taken a further nine months, we’re so pleased that Barbara and other prisoners here in the UK can now have their chosen books sent from outside. In order to test whether the lifting of restrictions has come into effect, and by way of thanks, we will be sending a selection of these books directly to Barbara.”

Gordon-Jones put together a list including titles like Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King and John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday – see below – and plans to send secondhand copies assembled from PEN staffers. Decline and Fall and Pincher Martin are due to be mailed first.

book list
book list
 Barbara Gordon-Jones’s list of the books she is unable to access.

5. My Struggle series by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Books are of course vital to prisoners everywhere. Aaron Persichetti, who lives in Houston, told us about what he would like to send. 

“An acquaintance of my wife’s was recently sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary at Huntsville, Texas. His given name is André and he maintains both US and Russian citizenship. We haven’t had any contact with him yet; he surrendered himself to the police last Tuesday, though my wife hopes to hear from him soon. That being said, André was never quite the biggest reader – deep down I’m jealous that he can read Dostoevsky in the original but chooses not to (though I suppose that says more about my character than his); however, I can understand that The House of the Dead is not something one would want to read in prison.

“What I would, and perhaps someday shall, send to André is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series. I don’t read Norwegian, so I cannot deliver a final verdict, but the reason I would send it to someone incarcerated is quite simple: Knausgaard delves so deeply into the sheer banality of life that the reader cannot help but become transfixed … thus one can be locked in a concrete room, and at the same time remember one’s own experiences through another’s narration, albeit with a Nordic twist. At the same time, we are all human, plodding through different quagmires of life, yet still striving for the same goal: that which we personally define as happiness. André is a strong man, I hope he can find a modicum of his definition.”

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