Books behind bars

The newest addition to the denizens of Freedom Press made a noisy entrance late last month by thumping down a huge mountain of literature destined for inmates up and down the country. The small but active collective has been delivering educational texts, dictionaries and large print books aimed at helping people educate themselves since 1996. The timing, and this interview, coincides with a controversial ban on prison books from secretary of state for justice Chris Grayling.

RR: Can you say a little bit about the history of Haven Distribution and how it got started? How have things changed over the interceding years?

L: Haven began as a mail order non-profit DIY distribution selling books, records and zines in 1991 and then, after being involved with London ABC in the early ’90s, I noticed requests for books from prisoners complaining about a shortage of decent reading materials.

This was a time when there were many political prisoners in UK jails. I also heard about Left Bank in the States, who were also sending in books to prisoners, and that inspired me so I made the decision in 1996 to convert my small distro into one specifically aimed at sending in free books to UK prisoners as there was nothing similar here.

Haven’s role in UK prisons had a snowballing effect where we were becoming more popular and I couldn’t keep up with the demand.

I ran it for four years on my own, then I got two other people to become trustees towards the end of the ’90s. We had a few standing orders from friends and we relied on casual summer work selling beer at festivals, but that amount of money was still not enough so we applied for charitable status in 2000 and were given it in 2001.

This then enabled us to approach charitable trusts which gave us access to bigger amounts of money to buy books. The colossal amount of books we have sent in since would not have been possible without some of the large grants we were awarded. Its not been easy and at times we’ve come close to winding up but we still seem to be here, doing what we’re doing.

How does Haven function on a day-to-day basis?

We have mainly been between three to five members as people come and go and we’re currently three people again. Its always been a stretch running a national charity in our spare time as we all have jobs but it somehow seems work OK. It is mostly run by me as I do most of the day-to-day tasks.

How successful have you been in getting books to people over the years and what sort of feedback do you tend to get? What sort of topics do you tend to cover?

We’ve struggled to get books into prisons and three prisons currently have a ban on us sending books in at all. Having said that last year we sent in 1,700 so we still get a fair amount in. The London Antifa prisoners got most of their books banned but we challenged that.

What we do is twofold. We have a catalog of donated books (like from Freedom, AK and Phoenix Press), which we offer to prisoners every six months and on the other side we get funding from charitable trusts to pay for dictionaries in every language, educational books ranging from computer programming, catering, construction to counseling and hairdressing. We’ll buy pretty much any educational books but not religious ones.

Have you got any favourite moments or examples that would illustrate how Haven’s made a positive impact on the lives of prisoners?

For me its been seeing a few of the inmates who have now left prison and working on the outside. I’ve been fortunate enough to see a few of them when they were inside and how they became more confident people with hope, rather than being stuck in a revolving door process which is hard to get out of for some.

How do you organise and fund yourselves at present?

We have a few standing orders which keep us steady, we sell second hand books on the internet and through bookstalls to raise money and we also approach charitable trusts for the bulk of our funding. The running of the distro is done at evenings and weekends.

How can people help out?

People can help out by helping us to fundraise. If they can afford to setting up a standing order. Putting on a benefit gig/event, if they have any fundraising experience we’d like to hear from them. Or by just using Everyclick as their main search engine (details on our website), they can help out that way.

What sort of impact in the short term do you think Grayling’s ban is likely to have?

We put out a statement on our website about this. I think each prison will react differently. Some prison officers want an easy life without too much stress at work so they may still allow books to continue. On the other hand, there’s the old saying that you give someone a bit of power and it goes straight to their heads. Those types of officers will be returning books or putting them into an inmate’s property box so they can have them when they leave jail.

What about long term?

Grayling’s ban is all about an additional punishment. If he had said “we’ll ban TVs” there wouldn’t have been any reaction but most people know books can change people and in certain parts of the world some people believe books make people better informed and better educated. So I can see why people feel so incensed by the ban. I don’t know about the long term but I wouldn’t be surprised if the ban was quietly dropped without any fuss or if he made a U-turn saying he thinks books are too important to ban.

Some commenters have linked the ban to increasing commercialisation of the prison estate – effectively arguing that it’s part of an attempt to force prisoners onto production lines by denying them gifts from the outside which might give them the resources to opt out. What do you think of that sort of analysis?

I don’t really see this happening, it is more of an additional punishment rather than a carrot and stick like the Incentives and Earned Privilege Scheme (IEPS). There are a whole load of prisoners who can’t read books (whether due to language barriers or illiteracy) and many more who would never bother reading books, so the ban is only effecting bookish people or those wanting to educate themselves.

Have you been getting involved in the campaign to overturn the ban?

No, we’ve not got involved with any campaign we’re just carrying on sending books in. We’ve mostly challenged previous book bans using help from the Prisoners Advice Service. Now legal aid is being restricted or abolished altogether, which is a much bigger issue that doesn’t seem to be getting much support outside the legal profession. We hope to continue challenging bans though and have been talking with a barrister about the repercussions of any future banning of books.