Written by Bryan Gibson
To my surprise one of our books was recently returned by a reviewer saying, ‘Little point right now, books are not getting to prisoners’. She explained that they are either being refused or held up by security due to the ease with which drugs can be imprinted on paper, so that in many prisons they have been stopped or are being photocopied with inbuilt delay given other priorities. I’ve no way of knowing if this is true or how general, whether just a few establishments or a wider approach. My call to the Ministry of Justice Press Office elicited first a denial, then a maybe and finally a promise to investigate how widespread the problem is. They’ve not yet come back.
Over the years Waterside has published many books of interest to prisoners including on prisoner education, prison art, drama, therapy, counselling, directory-type works, reform, workbooks and across the spectrum from life imprisonment and serial killers to miscarriages, going straight, restorative justice and history. We’ve even published on Oscar Wilde’s time at the now defunct Reading Gaol (I wonder what he might think!), Grendon, Dovegate, Blantyre House and The Maze in Northern Ireland. Their authors include prison governors, psychologists, professors, penal reformers and lawyers. Serious stuff whose words may now be being stifled due to a minority of inmates, I’m told it’s a few, whose outside associates use suspect microdots and so on.
Prison writing is a valuable but two-way process. Education and enjoyment aside many prisoners have changed their lives using writing as a rehabilitative bridge to new careers. Our first of the genre was Bob Turney’s acclaimed I’m Still Standingway back in 2002. Recommended to me personally by Lord Longford, Bob the one-time prolific burglar went on to become a probation officer!
Ex-offenders who followed his lead include Alan Weaver who became a social worker (So You Think You Know Me), Ben Ashcroft (young offender to youth worker, Fifty-one Moves) and Justin Rollins (motivational speaker, The Lost Boyz). We even published actor Stephen Fry’s turnaround story in a collection called Going Straight. The new kid on the block is Andi Brierley who went from prisoner and heroin addict to head of a youth justice unit in Leeds. His story of hope for others is set out in Your Honour, Let Me Tell You My Storywhich comes out this April. Each of these books centres on identifying the changes, choices and threads that led from villain to law-abiding citizen.
I hope the ‘ban’ on books is just a scare story and that the MOJ and those who guard prisoners realise how reading, writing, literacy and shining examples can sometimes be highly productive.