Lock and key

Last week, the Ministry of Justice said it will allow independent booksellers to deliver to prisons, after applying online. Fives Leaves Bookshop owner Ross Bradshaw, writing before the announcement was made, explains his own efforts to supply prisons, and why it matters

Owning your own books — particularly those that are gifts from friends — is something we take for granted on the outside. The government has changed its regulations about books being sent in to prisons, but they can only be sent by Waterstones, Foyles, W H Smith and Blackwell’s. Does that mean the thousand or so independents are a risk to prison safety? And what about second-hand books? Or publishers?

I rang my local prisons to find out what they knew of the recent change of regulations. If I wanted to send a book to a relative inside, how do I do it? As a bookseller, can I send a book on behalf of a customer?

HMP Whatton told me to contact Her Majesty’s Prison Service nationally. HMP Ranby was friendly, but could not find anyone who knew. HMP Lowdham Grange, run by Serco, had nobody who could tell me. HMP Nottingham said they would find out and ring back. They didn’t. I rang HM Prison Service to ask them the same questions, and to ask if any independent bookshop had ever tried to smuggle books into prisons. Their public number rang endlessly. 

The MoJ was unable to supply any information about whether an indie bookshop had been involved in sending inappropriate material into prisons as this material is not held centrally.

I further asked the MoJ whether, under the new regime, it would be possible for second-hand books to be supplied to prisoners? There are organisations—Haven Distribution comes to mind—that have supplied books free of charge to prisoners. Will that be allowed? Will publishers be able to supply books to prisoners direct? Why do you need suppliers to have an online presence and a wide variety of branches? Why can’t a relative or friend simply get their local bookshop to supply material, as used to happen? Do you believe that allowing indies to supply material would “create a new conduit for smuggling drugs and extremist materials into our prisons?” Could you define “extremist material”? The MoJ was unwilling to expand on its initial statement. 

Lilian Greenwood, the Labour MP whose constituency includes Five Leaves Bookshop, is now taking the issue further and has written to the  justice secretary about coming up with a more “sensible” policy.

Ross Bradshaw owns Five Leaves Bookshop