I did not mean this blog to be political, but even someone like me who has no history of direct action at all, has to speak up at some point.

This is that point.

New rules introduced by the justice secretary ban anyone sending in books to prisoners. From now on, any man, woman or child in prison will not be able to receive a book from outside. This is part of an increasingly irrational punishment regime orchestrated by Chris Grayling.


Many years ago I was an English teacher in a Young Offenders’ Institution, working three mornings a week while my son was at school and my daughter at play group.  It was a high security modern prison, filled with young men, aged between 17 and 21, who had committed serious crimes.

It wasn’t the hardest teaching I ever did. That was in a ropy school in Newcastle, with no discipline but harsh words, and no respect shown to the pupils by the staff, so accordingly, none shown to staff by pupils.  In HMYOI Castington, I taught small groups (up to 12) in a class with windows onto a corridor where a prison officer patrolled regularly.  I felt safe and I had students who were, most of them, keen to learn.  It wasn’t hard for them to see that education could be their way out of living as a criminal and that it could offer them a secure future.  Of course, our influence ended as soon as they went beyond the prison gates, either to move to an adult prison, or to be released.  I used to worry about how they would get on once they were back in their home communities.

It could be very demanding teaching: if there had been an incident on the wing during the night they came to the education block excited, voluble and unable to settle to work.  You just had to go with it, be patient, let them talk it out, then bring them gently but firmly back to the work you were there to ensure was carried out.

When I say I loved those lads – the armed robbers, rapists, manslaughterers and murderers –  it sounds soft, as if I condoned their crimes.  That’s not how it was.  There, more than in any school or college I taught in, I learned the immense value of education, and understood its transformative power. So I loved them, not what they had done, with the disinterested love which a good teacher has for her students.  There is nothing soft about wanting people to do well, giving them the means to learn and being delighted when they do.

When I say that one of the highlights of my time there was teaching Hamlet, that might be a surprise to Chris Grayling, the latest member of this snobbish, patronising and mean-spirited government to show his true nature.  His view of prison and prisoners ought not to unexpected I suppose, but oh dear, we are still utterly dismayed by this latest inanity.

Hamlet became a huge success with my class when I hit on the idea of holding a trial of Claudius, giving them all parts to play, and letting them get on with it.  They all knew about trials: they knew about evidence and arguing a case, and how defendants can sometimes go free when they’re guilty.  By this time they also knew the play inside out, and the trial which I thought might last half an hour or so, took up a whole morning and spilled over into the next session too.  It was not so easy with the so called ‘Basic Education’ class, where the students struggled with reading and had little stamina for learning.  All the more important to inspire them, provide them with good reading material, and help them acquire the confidence and sense of self-worth that comes with being fully literate.

Sandstone Press is proud to have begun as a publisher of adult literacy texts, the Vista series, short books for adults who find reading a challenge, and who need accessible, attractive texts to help them progress.

Books have always been integral and vital to my life. The idea that they should be rationed, withheld or seen as an unnecessary luxury, is abhorrent to all the writers and decent people protesting the absurd new rule.

You can do something too – sign the Change.org petition:


or tweet your shelfie and a supportive message to @MoJGovUK in support of books for prisoners.

I’ve also written directly to Chris Grayling.  Have I had a reply?  Not yet, but it’s hardly likely to reassure me if it does come.

All this week, I’ve been thinking again about the lads I taught so many years ago.  They needed books.