It's always difficult to predict whether something that comes to one's attention on social media will amount to a real political "scandal", of course, because one tends to see only the opinions of those people you are actively following, but there seems to be something qualitatively different about the debate between the MoJ and the usual array of penal practitioners and activists, which has drawn both popular opposition (a petition gathering 19,500 signatures in three days) as well as celebrity condemnations from big-name authors such as Mark Haddon, Philip Pullman and Ian Rankin, and the playwright Alan Bennett.
But why books? For one thing, the focus of the social media storm is largely on friends and relations sending in books when the actual ban (implemented in Prison Service Regulations last November) covers small parcels in general, preventing access to things as evocative as birthday and Christmas presents. And yet books have become the poster-child of the MoJ's discontents. At the same time, there are undoubtedly bigger issues in contemporary prisoners' rights, with legal aid for appellant prisoners being slashed and staffing reductions limiting the amount of time spent out of cells. Moreover, lest we forget, the prison population draws disproportionately from the disadvantaged sections of society, with estimates consistently suggesting that between a third and two-thirds of the prison population lack the literacy and numeracy skills expected of an 11-year-old. If so few prisoners can read, does the scale of the problem of access to books justify the response provoked?
There are a number of salient factors here, of course, some of which are:
- Celebrity Vested Interests: Banning books means restricting prisoners from accessing authors. Renowned writers have a vested interest in joining the Howard League-led opposition, both in the cynical fiscal sense (although I doubt that anyone thinks it's much of an issue), but also in a more normative sense. To write is to communicate, after all, and to deprive an audience to the writer is to deprive them part of the reason why they do what they do.
- Middle-Class Sensibilities and the Rhetorical Place of Books: A mainstream, middle-class audience can find it difficult to relate to marginalised populations, particular where (as with offenders) they are consistently demonised and othered in mass media and in political discourse. However, a campaign can reach that audience if it can give people something to rally behind, and books are a potent symbol of that. Relatively few social media users will ever rely on legal aid (much less as a prisoner) or encounter the Probation Service, but everybody using those media (which use words, after all) reads. So the deprivation of books is something they can empathise with as a real deprivation. We can see that in some of the symbolism and rhetoric of the backlash, with the hashtag #TheBookThief being borrowed from the popular book and film to demonise Grayling as, at best, a petty-minded misdemeanant, and at worst, a latter-day Nazi. This is not entirely a vindication of Godwin's Law ("Any sufficiently long argument on the internet will involve an analogy to Nazi Germany"), however, but more a recognition of the central symbolic role that the book plays in modern society as a symbol of knowledge, of access to enlightenment, and indeed to power, which is as much a cultural-historical point as a reflex invocation of Nazi book-burnings. Which brings us on to...
- The Rhetoric of "Rehabilitation": This has been a key battleground in the debate between Grayling and the Howard League. For Grayling, it reflects his (inherited) commitment to a "rehabilitation revolution" in criminal justice. The slogan is invoked in support of a wide raft of controversial criminal justice reforms, and essentially alleges that the criminal justice system is far too ineffective at reducing reoffending, and that radical reform is needed to shake the dust out of the machinery. However, Frances Cook of the Howard League has stressed (and many of her celebrity backers have reiterated) that books can play a central role in the rehabilitative process, whether in terms of increasing knowledge, encouraging empathy, or just generally providing a way to enrich one's life.
In fine, in other words, the "Books for Prisoners" scandal isn't really about books at all, but reflects a contest at the level of ideas in criminal justice discourse. Books are merely a potent symbol of a broader disjuncture between what Grayling's ministry is trying to achieve and what practitioner and special-interest advocates consider to be important. It could well be that this comparatively small issue is only the first rumble that ends in an avalanche.