This may sound like wish-fulfillment to some of the more militantly anti-Big Media types among us, but six UK publishers and book world figures have gone to jail in London. No, it’s not for price fixing, nor for defrauding would-be authors through Author Solutions-style vanity press gouging. Instead, they did it voluntarily – and in a good cause.
Pavilion Books’ “A Night in the Cells” was staged in support of the campaign by Britain’s Howard League for Penal Reform against the British government’s widely condemned ban on sending books to prisoners. The cells were actually in a disused London police lockup underneath the headquarters of Pavilion Books, whose CEO Polly Powell joined Society of Authors chair Anna Sebba, Pavilion publishing consultant and organizer David Graham, Hachette UK deputy CEO David Young, Conville & Walsh literary agent Clare Conville, and Profile Books founding MD Andrew Franklin, in the cells overnight. All had a book for company overnight – something denied many British prisoners by the current UK government.
“I hope our small contribution to the campaign to overturn the pointlessly cruel and unnecessary decision to refuse prisoners the right to receive books will make a difference,” said Polly Powell.
“Books and essentials such as underwear should not be seen as perks or privileges. Reading books goes hand in hand with education, with rehabilitation, with humanity,” states the Howard League. “We should do everything we can to encourage reading and not restrict a prisoner’s access to books.”
I suspect many of us have become jaded by our court systems, here and abroad. We set our expectations low and even then find they’re not met. But banning sending books to prisoners so crazy, perhaps we should look deeper. There might be more than meets the eye. I really doubt prison wardens are so perverse, they object to inmates learning auto repair.
I suspect there’s a hidden factor that our lazy news media is neglecting to report. That hitch may be that Islamist groups have been mailing terrorism-as-jihad books to UK prisoners, using those books as a recruiting tool. Since courts often make great show that restrictions have to be ‘content neutral,’ the prisons were faced with a dreadful dilemma, let in books that recruit terrorists or ban all mailed-in books. They chose the latter. And in addition, because announcing to openly that’s their reason would provoke controversy from those ever-complaining Muslim groups, they haven’t said why.
Perhaps there’s another factor that isn’t being reported by all this fuss. I imagine that the prisons do have libraries that have lots of books, but books that, because purchase decisions legitimately have to be made, don’t include terrorism promotion. If they do, this yelping that prisoners are being denied books is just that–yelping.
I’m unimpressed by absolutist of all sorts, including those you find among some authors groups and librarian organizations. They loudly rebel against reasonable restrictions on ‘free speech’ much like old-school industrialists protests as a violation ‘free enterprise’ laws that limit what they could dump in rivers and lakes. Indeed, there are often parallels in the social impact of both.
You see that, regular as clockwork each year when the American Library Association mounts its high horse, turns its collective nose toward the heavens, and denounces those who want to ‘ban books.’
Are the books really banned? No, all are readily available through almost any bookstore. What the ALA is getting its dander up about is that parents are protesting that a particular book, whose faults are obvious, is readily available and often required reading by school children. The ALA isn’t defending freedom of the press, which has nothing to do with mandated reading. It’s defending one of the vilest of evils, the state-run indoctrination children by a select few.
Incidentally, that attitude is often linked to an indifference about genuine censorship. Back in the early 1930s, H. G. Wells and others in PEN (a big-name writers group) were hostile toward the idea of denouncing the brutal censorship of the Stalin regime. Much more recently the ALA has refused to condemn Cuba’s mistreatment of those who’re setting up libraries in violation of the communist regime’s strict censorship policies. Those being thrown into prison, the ALA asserted, weren’t really librarians since they lacked the proper degrees.
I leave it to you to sort out whether these policies are the result of stupidity, of a narrow and unreflective dogmatism common among some professions, or of genuine malice.
So take note that the real story here may be quite different from that reported in the media or trumpeted loudly by those in this publicity-seeking Society of Authors. In this case, this prisons may actually be displaying the best good sense they can given the utter lack of good sense or even basic decency in the legal system, among authors groups or from Muslim organizations.
–Michael W. Perry. co-author of Lily’s Ride: Rescuing her Father from the Ku Klux Klan