Nothing’s more meaningful than self-education – but to do that in a prison cell, you need books

Haven Distribution is a UK charity aiding prison education, through a simple but significant contribution: buying and sending books to prisoners.

Luke Billingham
2 March 2017

Haven Distribution logo, Clifford Harper. All rights reserved.

Haven Distribution logo, Clifford Harper. All rights reserved.Since 1996, Haven Distribution have been making a simple but significant contribution to UK prison education: buying and sending books to prisoners. Despite having no paid staff and just a handful of volunteers, we supply around 2000 books a year, and have sent books into almost every prison in the UK.

Every prisoner pursuing education is doing so in difficult circumstances, and many have only ever experienced education in unfavourable conditions. A large proportion of UK prisoners received precious little education before their imprisonment, are eager to educate themselves "inside", and face substantial problems in their attempts to do so. Struggling to access educational books – even after former justice secretary Chris Grayling’s infamous “book ban” has long since been lifted – remains a major issue.

It makes a big difference to send prisoners a book, which becomes their property, and which they can keep in their cell. Books are significant educational tools for prisoners, and their significance is best understood in the context of common barriers to education that prisoners have faced "outside" and continue to face "inside".

Barriers to education on the outside

The lives that prisoners have led before their imprisonment vary greatly. Everyone has the potential to make a mistake, commit a crime, and become a prisoner. But a common story among prisoners is having had only intermittent education prior to imprisonment, having spent much of their childhood and adolescence outside of mainstream schools.

Education is obviously a complicated issue. Many prisoners report having limited their own schooling through truancy, and older prisoners will often have left school at 14. Their education can also be affected by a myriad of personal factors such as living in care, mental health issues or childhood trauma, which can make it more difficult for young people to engage with education, and for those trying to engage them. But institutional limitations also play a large role. Too many students are excluded from school – especially those from poor backgrounds, and those of Black or Traveller heritage. Schools rarely want to exclude students, but are often ill-equipped to fully assess and address their needs. Concerns about the Alternative Provision (AP) institutions attended by excluded students are widespread. A 2012 government paper on AP, for instance, described it as “a flawed system that fails to provide suitable education and proper accountability for some of the most vulnerable children in the country”.

The link between school exclusion and custody is strong: a recent study suggested that pupils excluded from school at 12 are four times as likely to end up in prison as adults, and a recent government report pointed out that the vast majority of young people in custody have been excluded from school at some point. The same report highlighted that the Secure Children’s Homes, Secure Training Centres and Young Offenders Institutions which make up our youth custody system regularly fail to provide sufficient education. Last August, we received a letter from an inmate at Barlinnie Prison, Glasgow, in which he said: “you can feel that as a prisoner the outside world views us as…not worth attempting to educate.” For too many in our prisons, they’ve been treated as though they are not worth attempting to educate for much of their lives.

This all contributes to the broadly low levels of education in our prisons. UCL research found that half of those admitted to UK prisons in 2014-15 had a literacy level below Level 1, suggesting that they could only read and write very basic texts (Level 1 is equivalent to GCSE grades D-G).

For those large numbers of prisoners who have had few educational opportunities, books are crucial tools for the start of their education inside. Dictionaries and thesauruses are by far our most frequently requested books, supporting those who are beginning to develop their literacy. We’ve received letters from prisoners telling us they’ve read the dictionary we sent cover to cover, and countless thank you notes expressing how much a dictionary has helped – a few of which you can see below.


That letter on the left refers to a bilingual dictionary we sent the prisoner, who was in Parkhurst. As the letter suggests, bilingual dictionaries can help prisoners’ confidence and their communication on the wings as much as their education. On a visit to Spring Hill prison last year, I was told by a staff member that a Turkish inmate’s self-assurance had noticeably improved since he’d received a bilingual dictionary from us.

It’s important to emphasise again that prisons are diverse places. Though prisoners tend to have lower literacy levels, and though we supply more dictionaries than anything else, we also send books to prisoners who are studying for undergraduate and masters degrees. Our books have helped prisoners studying thousands of different courses, everything from functional skills to philosophy, advanced mathematics to motor mechanics. Inmates often tell us about the module they’ve just completed or the qualification they’ve just attained using the book we supplied.

The progress that different prisoners make in whichever type and level of course they’re studying suggests that many prisoners are not only worth attempting to educate, but can become the most voracious learners there are. Just as everyone has the potential to commit a crime, every prisoner has the potential to excel with education.

Barriers to education on the inside

Prisoners’ potential to succeed in education is not always realised. As with education outside, the factors involved are complex and multiple, relating both to the prisoner’s background and to the institution they’re in. Prison life presents considerable barriers. Our prisons are badly overcrowded, and the educational courses they offer can only take limited numbers. The courses available vary by prison, but in most the range is small, especially once inmates go beyond basic literacy and numeracy. There are good reasons for prisons to prioritise the basics, but it means that prisoners wishing to progress beyond Level 3 often find it impossible. Staff shortages make it less likely that prisoners can transfer to prisons with more appropriate educational opportunities.

Organisations like the Prisoners’ Education Trust and the Longford Trust do brilliant work funding higher level courses, usually run by the Open University, but increases in fees make this more difficult. Whatever course a prisoner may be on, there sometimes aren’t enough prison officers for them to be unlocked for “free flow”, the only time they can get to the education department for class. A large number of prisoners are banged up in their cell for most of the day, in some cases for over 22 hours a day, and internet access is severely limited in prisons.

Alongside all of this, one of the most significant factors hampering prisoners’ education is the difficulties they continue to face getting hold of educational books. This was a problem before the “book ban”, and it continues now that it has been lifted. The controversy surrounding Grayling’s infamous ban highlighted the widespread support there is in the UK for prisoners to have access to books, but often missed in the discussion were the variety of issues affecting that access. Very few prisoners can afford to buy in books, for example, and not many more have friends or relatives on the outside who able to buy and send them.

The variable state of prison libraries was another factor too often ignored in the book ban debates. The prison library is the main source of reading material for inmates, but they rarely contain many educational books. We receive letters from prisons all over the country complaining about this. To quote a recent letter: “the library provides books but usually they are damaged or just pulp fiction that is of little educational value”. On top of this, more expensive non-fiction books are usually reference-only, meaning they can only be accessed during inmates’ very limited time in the library. The prison rules state that inmates should have a minimum of half an hour’s access to the library every two weeks, but in many cases they get even less than that, particularly when there aren’t enough officers to accompany them. “Library access is very erratic and prisoners who work hardly ever get to visit the library” – another recent letter.

Because of this, prisoners benefit enormously from receiving an educational book which they can have with them in their cell. It can transform education from a sporadic activity into something which they can pursue whenever they wish, for however long they like. Importantly, though we send most books to those who are enrolled on educational courses, any prisoner can order from our catalogues, so even those who aren’t attending classes can engage in education in their cells using books from us.

The difference that books can make

Given the scarce educational opportunities experienced by so many of our prisoners both before and during their sentence, free books can be invaluable for those motivated to educate themselves inside. In any setting, self-motivated education can be transformative. For prisoners it can be genuinely life-changing.

A prisoner wrote to us last month from Full Sutton to invite us to his degree graduation ceremony, and we received a letter last year from a man who’d won a Koestler Trust award, a prestigious art prize for prisoners, having honed his skills using a book we sent him. Equally significant is the effect that books can have in bringing hope and joy to what is, for many, the darkest time in their lives. Last October a prisoner wrote to us to say that he wasn’t going to open the books we’d sent him for two months – he wanted to wait and call them Christmas presents.

Our Radio 4 Appeal tells the story of Peter. He had been a serial re-offender, caught in the cycle of crime and imprisonment. Eventually, through a prison education department, he began voluntary work giving housing advice to other prisoners. He found out about Haven, and ordered books to help him in his work, and to assist him acquiring the relevant qualifications. The dictionary and Citizen’s Advice Guide that we sent him were the first books he’d ever owned. They helped him to get an NVQ Level 3 in Advice & Guidance, and on release he got a volunteering placement with St Giles Trust, and pursued a law course to specialise in housing.

Life in prison can be horrifying. The disgraceful state of our prisons has recently attracted media attention – riots, drugs, suicides, violence, escapes. Figures released at the end of January show that there were more suicides and deaths in custody during 2016 than in any previous year on record. There was an average of nearly 70 assaults in English and Welsh prisons each day last year. In light of this, books can seem trivial.

In many ways, these problems are of course more consequential and more urgent than books. But it’s important to remember the overall effect of these issues: they make it harder and harder for prisoners to have a safe and productive time in prison. In a more practical and concrete way, they also mean more and more prisoners are spending longer and longer banged up in their cells. This makes it vital for prisoners to have something meaningful and beneficial to do during their time locked up. In my view, nothing can be more meaningful or beneficial than self-education, and there's no tool more effective for that – at least within a prison cell – than books.

If you would like to donate, find out how here. As they have no paid staff, all donations to Haven go directly towards supplying books to prisoners. If you work with prisoners or know somebody who does, please show them Haven’s application form, and/or encourage them to write to them for a general reading catalogue. More details on applying to Haven for a book can be found here.

openDemocracy is partnering with the World Forum for Democracy, exploring the relationship between education and democracy. Read more here.

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