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29 Aug 2019

Books For Prisoners five years on: People in prison still struggle to receive books and use libraries

Problems in prisons mean that prisoners are still struggling to receive books and visit libraries, the Howard League for Penal Reform can reveal today (Thursday 29 August) – five years after the charity ran a successful campaign to overturn unlawful restrictions imposed by the then Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling.

Prisoners, their families and education charities have contacted the Howard League to report that books have been either returned to sender or held up by red tape. One prisoner said that even prayer books and bibles had been held in storage.

Meanwhile, access to libraries remains poor in many prisons. Restricted regimes, often enforced because of overcrowding and staff shortages, leave people spending hours on end in their cells without access to phone calls, work, exercise, education and library visits.

One overcrowded local prison was under so much pressure earlier this year that, in a whole month, it could take only 13 men from the wings to the library.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Books can be a lifeline for prisoners, who often have to spend months or even years locked almost all day in a small cell. The alternative is daytime TV.

“We should be moving heaven and earth to get people in prison to read. Prisons must give this priority.”

The Howard League launched its Books For Prisoners campaign in 2014 after the government introduced a ban on sending books into prisons. The campaign drew international support – from leading figures from the arts world, former prisoners of conscience and activists from across the political spectrum, as well as thousands of the charity’s members.

Writers who backed the campaign included Alan Bennett, Jacqueline Wilson, Sarah Waters, Sir David Hare, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Drabble, Mark Haddon, Nick Hornby, Ian McEwan, and the then Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who led a poetry reading outside Pentonville prison in London.

The restrictions were scrapped after the High Court ruled that they were unlawful. The Ministry of Justice changed its policy, indicating that prisoners could receive books from approved retailers and families and friends.

Five years on, however, problems persist. A Howard League review of official prison inspection reports reveals that inspectors have repeatedly encountered underused libraries and frustrated prisoners.

Bristol prison has a population of about 460, but only 13 men were taken from the wings to the library in May. A recent inspection of Garth prison, in Lancashire, found that, over the previous 12 months, the library had been closed almost half the time. In Woodhill prison, in Buckinghamshire, inspectors discovered that the library had operated normally on only seven occasions during the previous three months, owing to regime cancellations.

Children are affected, too. Inspectors visiting Feltham – a west London prison in split into two sides, one holding children and the other holding young adults – found that the library was on the adult side. Children could only get to the library for one hour in the evening, once a fortnight. However, this encroached on the time that the children were allowed to associate, so it was more like 30 minutes.

The Howard League has spoken to charities that have experienced difficulties in getting books to prisoners.

Each prison has its own rules and those rules change as the governors change. One month we can send things in, no problem and then suddenly we can’t again.

Haven Distribution, which purchases educational books for prisoners, said in a blogpost: “It’s now been a few years since the ban was lifted, and there’s far less conversation about books in prison. There’s a danger that some may assume all prisoners can now get hold of whichever books they want, which is far from the case.”

Haven Distribution reported that their “books are sometimes returned by prisons with little or no explanation, and we occasionally receive letters from prisoners saying their book has arrived at the prison, but they aren’t allowed to have it”.

The Kittiwake Trust, whose Borderline Books project provides books to prison libraries and individual prisoners, told the Howard League that some prisons were “extremely helpful” and others were “just plain obstructive”.

A trustee wrote: “One prison will only allow books in via family. Another will not allow books to go in via family. Each prison has its own rules and those rules change as the governors change. One month we can send things in, no problem and then suddenly we can’t again.”

Findings from prison inspections

Reports from inspections by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons reveal that some prisons are failing to provide good access to library services.

Staffing issues at Berwyn prison meant that weekend and evening library sessions were regularly cancelled. The legal books stocked in the library were out of date. (Inspection conducted in 2019)

Bristol prison was preparing for the opening of a new library, but attendance at the temporary library was described as “exceptionally poor” by inspectors. Only 13 prisoners were taken to the library from the wings in May 2019.
(Inspection conducted in 2019)

The library in Feltham was on the ‘B’ side of the prison, which holds young adults, separate from the education campus on the ‘A’ side, which holds children. Young adult prisoners used the library during the day and so children were excluded during this time and could not use the library as they would in a college. Children could only get to the library for one hour in the evening, once a fortnight. However, this encroached on association time and was more like 30 minutes. This did not encourage a rounded education or the formation of positive reading habits.
(Inspection conducted in 2019)

Garth prison’s own data showed that, over the previous 12 months, the library had been closed 46 per cent of the time. In the inspectorate’s survey, only 22 per cent of prisoners said they could access the library once a week or more, which was significantly lower than at other category B training prisons.
(Inspection conducted in 2019)

Inspectors found that the library in Foston Hall prison offered a comprehensive range of material and resources, but access to it was too limited. Library opening hours had been reduced because of the shortage in staff. Black and minority ethic prisoners were very negative about the range of stock – none of them, compared with 60 per cent of white prisoners, said that the library had a wide enough range to meet their needs.
(Inspection conducted in 2019)

Access to Bedford prison’s library was limited. Data collected by library staff indicated that 39 per cent of the prison population used the library, which mirrored the inspectorate’s survey findings. There was no library access as part of education, training or work. Each wing had weekly timetabled sessions but attendance was often hampered by incidents in the prison which removed officers or delayed the regime.
(Inspection conducted in 2018)

Access to Belmarsh prison’s library was too limited. Opening hours were restricted to the core working day and there was no access at weekends. Almost £8,500 worth of stock went missing in the year ending April 2017 and librarian outreach time was often spent recouping stock.
(Inspection conducted in 2018)

The library in High Down prison offered a range of activities to promote literacy but attendance had been affected by regime restrictions, and access from some house blocks was extremely poor. Access for the minority of prisoners who attended education classes was good, but prisoners who worked elsewhere or who were unemployed relied on a weekly escorted visit from their house block. The level of use by some house blocks was extremely poor, with attendance in single figures. In the inspectors’ survey, only 29 per cent of black and minority ethnic prisoners said that they were satisfied with the range of stock held, which was far lower than for other prisoners.
(Inspection conducted in 2018)

The library in Hull prison was open from Thursday to Sunday. While all wings had allocated sessions, there were sometimes not enough escorting officers, which limited access.
(Inspection conducted in 2018)

The library in Isis prison was welcoming and valuable, but underused. Attendance had been decreasing since the previous two inspections, and only 31 per cent of prisoners said that they went to the library at least once a week.
(Inspection conducted in 2018)

The library in Lowdham Grange prison was too small for the population and there was no study area. There were no library orderlies, although two cleaners assisted the librarian.
(Inspection conducted in 2018)

Attendance at the library in Maidstone prison was restricted to a half-hour slot that interrupted the working day. The library was not open during the evenings or at weekends, so there was little opportunity to use it as a resource or for study.
(Inspection conducted in 2018)

Men in Peterborough prison told inspectors that officers were not familiar with the library timetable. Staff working in the library said that wing staff were busy and did not prioritise getting prisoners to the library at their allotted times.
(Inspection conducted in 2018)

The library in Woodhill prison, operated by Northamptonshire Library Service, was often closed. Inspectors estimated that in the previous three months it had only operated normally on seven occasions, owing to regime cancellations. There were no scheduled evening or weekend sessions. Only about 100 prisoners were enrolled in the library.
(Inspection conducted in 2018)

Aylesbury prison’s library was managed by Buckinghamshire County Council. It had been closed for a significant period during the previous year. Only about a quarter of prisoners used the facility, and prisoners from one residential block had no access because of prison staffing issues. Those prisoners who did visit the library were not given sufficient time there. Links between the education department and the library to support learning were inadequate.
(Inspection conducted in 2017)

When inspectors visited Hindley prison, the library had only just reopened after a five-month closure. Prisoners had had no access to books or legal information between August and December 2017.
(Inspection conducted in 2017)

Only about a quarter of men in Holme House prison used the library regularly, partly because of regime shutdowns.
(Inspection conducted in 2017)

Most prisoners attended the library in Huntercombe prison once a week. However, access was limited as the library was closed on Fridays, weekends and evenings. A number of initiatives previously in place to help prisoners develop their reading skills had been suspended because of staffing issues.
(Inspection conducted in 2017)

In Liverpool prison, data indicated that it was normal for less than 10 per cent of the population to visit the library in any one week.
(Inspection conducted in 2017)

A survey by inspectors indicated that only 37 per cent of men in Northumberland prison used the library at least once a week. The number of prisoners who regularly borrowed books was low.
(Inspection conducted in 2017)

In Pentonville prison, the timetable for visits was limited and sessions were often very poorly attended due to a lack of prison officers to escort men to and from the library, particularly during the free-flow period. Only a small number of men visited from education classes and workshops. Prisoners were not taken to the library during their education induction, and some were unaware of the library’s location, or even its existence.
(Inspection conducted in 2017)

Only 21 per cent of men in Portland prison told inspectors that they went to the library at least once a week.
(Inspection conducted in 2017)

Access to the library in Wayland prison was poor. Prisoners were unable to attend during the evening, and only by appointment during the day. Saturday access had been reintroduced but only for short periods, and less than a tenth of prisoners took advantage of this opportunity. In a typical week, only a fifth of the prison population visited the library.
(Inspection conducted in 2017)

Access to the library in Buckley Hall prison was very poor and most prisoners could not get there at all. Data collected indicated that only 10 to 15 prisoners used it each day.
(Inspection conducted in 2016)

Access to the library in Full Sutton prison was too restricted. Only 33 per cent of prisoners were able to visit at least once a week – some way below the figure expected for a prison of this type.
(Inspection conducted in 2016)

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  1. More information about the Howard League’s Books For Prisoners campaign can be found on the charity’s website.
  1. Haven Distribution, which purchases educational books for prisoners, outlined its concerns in a blogpost published on the Stoke Newington Literary Festival website. More information about Haven Distribution’s work can be found on the charity’s website.
  1. More information about the Borderline Books project can be found online.
  1. Sir David Hare has written a letter to The Times about the Howard League’s findings. The letter can be read online.


Rob Preece
Campaigns and Communications Manager
Tel: +44 (0)20 7241 7880
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