On September 1, constraints on the number of books that prisoners can have in their cells will be lifted after justice secretary Michael Gove overturned a previous restriction.
There was widespread outcry when Gove’s predecessor, Chris Grayling, introduced rules under the controversial incentives and earned privileges scheme that limited prisoners to just 12 books. It also prevented prisoners from receiving direct parcels from outside senders – including books – unless there were “exceptional circumstances”.
The lifting of restrictions means that prisoners will be able to keep more books and relatives and friends can now also send works directly to inmates rather than buying through four approved retailers. The result of a campaign by the Howard League for Prison Reform, it will affect more than 85,000 inmates in England and Wales.
Along with many others I campaigned for prisoners’ books rights and in response to the lifting of the ban, here are 12 books I would suggest reading – including some I have posted to prisoners – which may help inmates make sense of their lives inside prison.
Escape Attempts: The Theory and Practice of Resistance in Everyday Life, Stan Cohen and Laurie Taylor, 1976
I sent Chris Grayling a copy of Escape Attempts as part of the Howard League campaign to repeal the prisoner book ban. It is not actually as impudent a choice as the title suggests. Cohen and Taylor document the deadening nature of prison routines and the importance of the life of the mind in imaging an alternative future into existence. I’ve seen this happen myself in prisoner education through being involved in a scheme called Open Book. Sociology gives prisoners a way to make sense of their own biography and the social forces that shaped it.
Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, Erving Goffman, 1961
Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman popularised the idea of understanding prisons as “total institutions” where inmates are forced to live in what Goffman calls “dead time”. Prisoners cope with this through “removal activities” like crafts, games, or physical exercise. As Goffman writes: “If the ordinary activities in total institution can be said to torture time, these activities mercifully kill it.” Reading inside is like this, creating a movement of imagination and a temporary means of transport to a world beyond the prison.
The Changing Face of Football: Racism, Identity and Multiculture in the English Game, Les Back, Tim Crabbe and John Solomos, 2001
I tried to take this book inside once during a prison visit. The student I was visiting was a keen football fan. At the entrance of Grendon the prison guard told me in disbelief that I could not take it in myself. In 2005 I was able to post it.
The prisoner said later that receiving the book was “like winning something”. Prisoners greet the beginning of the football season in August enthusiastically. It is as if the news of each result serves as a connection with a freer life and the world outside unfolding.
Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, Howard S Becker, 1963
According to French sociologist Emile Durkheim, if crime didn’t exist then societies would need to invent it to maintain social order. In this sense what we sociologists call “deviance” is normal. More than any other book Howard S Becker’s Outsiders provided a language to understand how the process of labelling criminal behaviour as “bad” is implicated in the exercise of moral authority and order.
Policing the Crisis: Mugging, The State and Law and Order, Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts, 1979
This prophetic book plots the emergence of “mugging” in the 1970s as a specifically racial form of crime. It shows how the media and crime control agencies connected “black crime” with existing social anxieties and provided a means to justify coercive state control and what would be come a “law and order” society.
Lush Life: Constructing Organised Crime in the UK, Dick Hobbs, 2013
For Hobbs the “criminal collaborations” of what he calls “unlicensed capitalism” provide a way to read the social and economic history of London. Through vivid portraits of “duckers and divers”, “scam artists” and “safe crackers’” Hobbs offers a picture of complex working-class humanity.
What we learn is more than a better way to understand crime. As Hobbs guides us through London’s human ruins in which deracinated and impoverished citizens live and work with the cruel promise of a lush life.
Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Y Davis, 2003
There are more than 2.2m Americans in prisons: they are disproportionately black and brown and for them slavery was never abolished. The 13th amendment of the American constitution legally allows slavery when it comes to prisoners.
In this era of super-incarceration, Davis argues that for an alternative to the prison-industrial complex and a “new terrain of justice” and reconciliation.
Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, Marie Gottschalk, 2015
From sentencing policy to surveillance in everyday life, US prisons are being filled beyond capacity by a range of policies that increase the level of incarceration. Tacking the root causes of crime like poverty and inequality is only part of the solution. Gottschalk argues that the ill-conceived belief that tougher sentences actually work needs to be faced. For her prisons “should be reserved only for people who pose a grave threat to society”.
Native Son, Richard Wright, 1940
Wright portrays crime and violence as an almost inevitable product of racism in American life. Focusing the story of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, the novel describes the life conditions of young black Americans on Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s. While never apologising for Bigger’s crimes, Richard Wright makes his readers confront the human complexity of his fate.
The Soul Knows No Bars: Inmates Reflect on Life, Death, and Hope, Drew Leder, 2000
Professor Drew Leder taught classes in philosophy to incarcerated men in Baltimore. Together they read Simone Weil, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Cornel West and this book documents the usefulness they found in these ideas when read behind bars. Through the Socratic dialogues with Leder the inmates find hope in the midst of their damaged lives.
All About Loving: New Visions, bell hooks, 2000
All forms of oppression destroy love including patriarchy, domestic violence, racism and class exploitation. Love is ultimately incompatible with greed and avarice. We need look no further than Martin Scorsese’s portrait of narcotic capitalism in The Wolf of Wall Street – and Jordan Belfort’s nihilistic emotional life – for confirmation of her diagnosis. At the same time bell hooks makes an impassioned case for holding to a love ethic, one that is inspired equally by Martin Luther King’s sermons and feminist commitments.
Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man a Young Man and Life’s Great Lesson, Mitch Albom, 1997
Sociologist Morrie Schwartz gives one last class to his former student in the face of death. Twenty years after graduation Mitch Albom returns to his professor each Tuesday for a final set of tutorials on how to live. The book chronicles the content of these tutorials in life. Towards the end, Morrie turns to the issue of clemency. He says without equivocation: “Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Don’t wait.”
Les Back does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Authors: The Conversation