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Pants to prison regime

Jude Simpson

The furore over the 'banning' of books for prisoners reveals a bit of a mess. The policy is flawed and the arguments are bizarre. I know that policy-making isn't easy, but the latest prison regime seems to have been thought up by the kind of people who, frankly, couldn't organise a sponsored silence in a library (the satirist in me want sto point out that this may be partly because they've already closed most of the libraries down…)

I also have little sympathy with the literary giants who have suddenly come out as defenders of prisoners rights in this very specific (and self-interested) area. In a system where you have no control over where you are, how much time you spend outside, or even who you share a bedroom with, it seems odd to claim - as Philip Pullman has - that limiting access to books is 'one of the most disgusting, mean, vindictive acts of a barbaric government'.

I understand that prisoners are also no longer allowed to receive things like underwear sent in from home. Where are the protests and campaigns about that? I can't help feeling that in any stressful situation, a nice pair of clean, cotton knickers - polka dot perhaps - would do my soul a whole lot more good than a Philip Pullman novel.

But this is an argument about the role of prisoners' families and friends in their punishment and rehabilitation, rather than a discussion about whether great literature should be allowed behind bars.

The Government hasn't banned books, it has introduced a regulated system of incentives and privileges. It's completely logical that a regulated system of incentives and privileges cannot function if prisoners are receiving privileges from third parties.

The fact is, the attentions of a loving family are a privilege rather than a right. They are lavished unevenly, and therefore do not contribute to the equality of treatment or of opportunity. And since one cannot legislate for love and care and attention to be lavished to the same, excellent, degree on everyone, the only option seems to be to remove such love (its effects and physical manifestations, at least) wherever it can be found.

So books from outside prison have to be banned. That's logical. But it's also logical that cutting down on family ties, and the ability for family and friends to express their love for a prisoner, is not going to help anybody's rehabilitation.

'Who are my mothers and brothers?' asked Jesus, when his immediate, flesh and blood family, were asking for him. And he went on to state that those of us who love and follow Jesus are as much, if not more, his family than those who shared his genes.

He also asked that we become family with others. Whatever you do for the least of these, you do to me. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners.

Jesus asks that through love and the Holy Spirit, we do the opposite of what the Government feels that it is required to do in prisons. He asks that we compensate for inequality by giving more love. Not just more literature.