We are delighted to be partnering with the charity Haven Distribution for this year’s festival. Haven started in Stoke Newington 23 years ago and its mission is to bring books and literacy to prisoners across the UK. In this blog, Haven Trustee Luke Billingham gives an insight into their history and their work.
Our founder and Chair, Lee, started our work back in 1996 by himself, packing and sending out books to prisoners from his room in a small Stoke Newington flat.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and a couple of things have changed: we have a ramshackle office (a few stops away from Stokey on the London Overground!), and we’re run by a handful of volunteers in our spare time, rather than just the one. Other than that, though, much has stayed the same – we’re still guided by the simple purpose of sending books to as many prisoners as we can.
We now send in over 2500 books a year, and we’ve sent books into every adult prison in the UK. We get books into prisons in two ways: we purchase and send in educational books for prisoners who are studying courses inside, and we have catalogues from which any prisoner can request free books. Over the course of our history we’ve sent tens of thousands of books into prisons, and have supported hundreds of different courses, ranging from carpentry to criminology and from mathematics to motor mechanics.
With prison education and library budgets tight, we provide a vital resource for prisoners’ study. We have good relationships with prison tutors across the country, who often arrange the book applications for their students so that they can receive course books they’d otherwise have no access to. Courses in our prisons are being affected by officer shortages: a prison tutor recently told me that around 40% of their classes were being cancelled due to a lack of officers to accompany prisoners to education. If prisoners have books from us, which they own and can have with them in their cells, they can continue their studies whatever the state of the library, and however much they are kept from attending classes. They can pursue self-motivated self-education, often the most transformative form of education there is.
Prisons are diverse places, in many ways, and books are one of the few things which can almost match the diversity of people. Literacy levels in our prisons are, on average, very low. Reflecting this, our most popular books are dictionaries, and we frequently receive letters highlighting the role our dictionaries have played in helping prisoners learn to read and write. There is also a significant population in our prisons who do not have English as their first language. We send in lots of bilingual dictionaries, helping prisoners both to progress in English courses and communicate on the wings. One letter from the Isle of Wight recently said: “Thank you so much for getting my dictionary for me. It is my pleasure because I need it always so I am feeling confidence with the dictionary. As you know English is my second language. I am very happy.” Perhaps less well-known is the fact that there are plenty of prisoners studying undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. There is great intellectual and academic potential in prisons, and books are a crucial tool for helping this potential to be realised. A man in Full Sutton wrote to us: “I have recently commenced my penultimate study module towards my BSc (Hons) Criminology & Psychology with the Open University. You have previously provided me with numerous books that have assisted me with my study…These have both been invaluable and helped me greatly.”
Many will remember the “book ban” of 2014, when Justice Minister “Failing” Chris Grayling infamously restricted what could be sent into prisons in this country, including books. It attracted widespread criticism, and did not last long. 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. Firstly, far from all prisoners have family or friends who are able and willing to send books in for them now that the ban is lifted. For instance, a prisoner at Wandsworth recently wrote to us after receiving some books from us, saying: “I cannot tell you how much it means to be able to receive the books. I have no family in the UK so your books mean so much to me.” Secondly, those who do send books to prisoners can still face problems and restrictions. Our 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. Prisoners writing to Inside Time – the prison newspaper – have also increasingly highlighted issues with receiving books in recent months. The public outcry at Grayling’s ludicrous book ban demonstrated the enormous support there is across the country for prisoners to access and benefit from books. Unfortunately, despite the lifting of the ban, the fight is far from fully won.
At Haven we’ll always be flooding the country’s prisons with books, and we’re very grateful to Stoke Newington Literary Festival for supporting us to continue doing so.
If you would like to support Haven Distribution’s work…
If you’d like to support our work, there’s lots of ways you can do so:
• Come and find us at our stall outside Stoke Newington Town Hall (or inside if it’s raining!) on Saturday 8th or Sunday 9th June, and buy a Haven T-Shirt or tote bag! All proceeds go to sending books to prisoners. They can also be bought online here.
• Buying and sending books to prisoners across the UK is expensive. As we’re entirely run by volunteers, with no paid staff, all donations go on sending books to prisoners. You can donate or (even better!) set up a standing order at http://www.havendistribution.org.uk/donating
• Look out for our Christmas Appeal later this year, during which we will once again be raising funds to send children’s books into prisons, so that parents inside can give them to their children as Christmas presents on family visit days
• Follow us on Facebook (search “Haven Distribution Books to Prisoners”) and on Twitter – we’re @haven_distrib
• If you work in a prison or with prisoners, spread the word about our work
• We have received generous book donations from publishers such as Sage, Verso and Pluto. If you are a book publisher and would like to donate books, please get in touch. We would be especially interested in publishers who could donate paperback dictionaries!
Due to very limited storage space, we unfortunately cannot accept donations of second-hand books.
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