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Books for prisoners - A novel approach

In a nutshell for those with limited reading time:

New rules that stop UK prisoners receiving parcels have led to a political row over prisoners' access to books being restricted. Justice secretary Chris Grayling sees books as a privilege that must be earned through prisoner cooperation rather than as a basic right for everyone. While prisoners will still have access to prison libraries, the new rule clearly greatly reduces prisoners' access to the wide range of reading opportunities that they might like. Whether prisoners are reading for pleasure or education (or both), easy access to a wide range of books should be non-negotiable in a decent society, even for the most notorious or uncooperative prisoners. People are more than just flesh and blood; we need to feed our minds as well as our bodies.

So why not make use of ebook technology to give cheap, easy access to a large library for all prisoners? It’s not 1975. I’ve got a portable device that can store thousands of books and hold a charge for a month. I’m sure Chris Grayling has seen these things too, even if he’s never found a use for one.

How could ebooks work in prison? We’d have to cover several bases:

  • User acceptance: the system would have to be sufficiently simple and worthwhile for the prisoners to use.
  • Security: the prison service would want to ensure that the system created manageable new security risks. For example, the ebook readers should be hard to convert into weapons or otherwise be repurposed for illicit or disruptive activities such as gambling or drug dealing.
  • Cost: While it costs more to send someone to Belmarsh than to Eton, the prison service would want the costs of such a system to be acceptable and sustainable over time.

The device

You’d probably need custom hardware. An off-the-shelf Kindle or Android tablet wouldn’t cut it as it’d be likely too fragile for prison use. These things will be dropped, thrown and trodden on, and the prison service wouldn’t want to lose a £100 device every time that happened. Nothing is indestructable and you wouldn’t want to add too much bulk and weight to the device, but this isn’t something like a Kindle that benefits from extreme portability. The prisoners aren’t going anywhere. So you’d have a heavy rubber bumper around the outside, a tough shatterproof screen, and robust hardware buttons rather than a touchscreen. Rugged tablets and laptops have been around for years for industrial and military uses. The issues are well understood.

Also you’d want a device without any built-in radios for security reasons. No wifi, Bluetooth or 3G. Prisoners shouldn’t be able to use their ebook readers to communicate with each other or anyone outside. (Personally I’d try to find a way to give prisoners some kind of internet access but this post is just trying to find something that’s acceptable to the prison service as it is, not as it should be.) The software and content would need to be updated over a physical hardware connection, not over the air.

You don’t want prisoners stealing the readers by smuggling them out to visitors or taking them with them when they leave. So the device would need to reduce the incentive for that by making them nearly useless anywhere else. They should have a distinctive design (perhaps bright red with HM PRISON SERVICE deeply embosssed into the back) and perhaps custom data and power connectors that aren’t compatible with commonly available chargers and cables.

An e-ink device with a fat battery could provide several weeks' worth of reading but the devices would still need to be charged from time to time. One possibility is to use a solar cell to extend the battery life or even remove the need for a separate charger entirely. While prisoners have power in their cells to run their TVs and PlayStations, it might be simpler if the devices are charged en masse at a central point rather than in the cells. There could be a charging station in the canteen or on the landing where several devices could charge at once. No separate cables to get lost, stolen or repurposed.

The charging station could also deliver software and content updates automatically as required.

The content

There’s no shortage of content out there that could be used. The simplest system would be to have the entire library stored on every device and updated periodically as new books are added (and perhaps removed). Text-only ebooks are small in data terms and memory is cheap and getting cheaper by the day. The economics of storing the entire library on the device already make sense.

The library would need to be compiled by librarians and other interested parties, including prisoners themselves. It would be reviewed and updated periodically, not less than once a year.

Project Gutenberg has over 42,000 out-of-copyright books that are free for anyone to use. That’d be a good start.

Wikipedia is also openly licenced and you can download the entire content or compile selected extracts from it. The whole of English Wikipedia takes 44GB of storage. A 64GB memory card costs around £30 retail today. You’d use built-in memory rather than removable cards for this but my point is that storage is cheap.

Librivox has a large catalogue of public domain (i.e. uncopyrighted) audio books. If the reader devices also had audio hardware, this would be great for many prisoners, especially those with limited literacy or visual impairments.

And that’s before we even get on to commercial content. Companies such as Overdrive run ebook services for public libraries. If you wanted to put copyrighted books on the devices you’d probably do it through someone like them.

If the devices had audio you could store podcasts, commercial audiobooks and selected BBC radio programmes.


The whole service could be supplied by a contractor to the library service and priced on a per device per year basis that included the content costs. The contractor could carry out maintenance on the devices on a swap-out basis. Additionally, prisoners themselves could carry out basic maintenance tasks such as replacing batteries and screens where appropriate workshop facilities existed.

Getting prisoners excellent access to a huge range of reading material would require some thought and moderate expense but is clearly feasible in 2014. The system could be adapted for use in other institutions such as schools and hospitals too. A universal ereader system in UK prisons would be likely to help improve prisoners' literacy, increase their education, fire their imaginations, reduce boredom and consequent depression and most of all give the prisoners a sense of the future and the wider world outside the four walls of their cells. And if that’s not what prison’s about it certainly should be.

First published on AdrianShort.org


Author - Adrian Short

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Should prisoners be stopped from getting books in the post?

In a blanket measure announced by Chris Grayling last spring and introduced on 1st November, prisoners in England and Wales will be prevented from recieving small items, including birthday cards from their children, magazines to help them pursue hobbies, and clothing except under exceptional circumstances.  Prisoners will instead be expected to purchase items, gaining access to funds via the 'Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme'.


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