The UK Prison Industrial Complex and the Lifeline of Literature

Writing by Rosaleen Keehan. Illustration by Antonia Popescu.


In the conversation surrounding prison abolition, the UK often seems to be left behind – even within the country we are adept at ignoring the ongoing situation surrounding us, simultaneously sticking our heads in the sand and our fingers towards the more often reported upon prison industrial complex of the United States, and the racism and cycle of poverty entrenched within it. But what about the prison system in the UK? When it comes to issues of mass incarceration, inequality within the prison system, and the prison industrial complex, the UK is far from innocent. The UK currently has the highest rate of incarceration in Western Europe, with a current prison population just shy of 88,000[1], and the most privatised prison system in Europe.[2]

Inequality within the British prison system is deeply intertwined with racism and classism, with “Black people 53%, Asian people 55%, and other ethnic groups 81% more likely to be sent to prison for an indictable offence at the Crown Court, even when factoring in higher not-guilty plea rates.” [3] The UK Prison Population Statistics 2020 nonchalantly states that “people of minority ethnicities [make up] 27% of the prison population compared with 13% of the general population”[4] – meaning BAME people are over twice as likely to land behind bars than white people. Poverty plays a prime part in UK prison inequality, with a 2012 report from the Ministry of Justice disclosing that approximately a quarter of all current prisoners had been in care at some point during their childhood, almost a third had experienced abuse and just shy of half had observed violence in the home as a child.[5]

Lack of access to education, as well as learning difficulties, are major factors in the cycle of poverty in the UK that lands people unfairly behind bars. Prisoners with learning difficulties account for around a third of the total prison population and are routinely cruelly discriminated against within the system. As well as struggling to make sense of their experience of imprisonment, four-fifths of prisoners with learning disabilities or difficulties reported having problems reading prison information. This inevitably leads to those with learning difficulties being more likely to break prison rules unknowingly; devastatingly, prisoners with learning difficulties are five times as likely to have been subject to control and restraint, and around three times as likely to report having spent time in isolation.[6]

A shocking example of the mistreatment of disabled people in tandem with the horrific racism entrenched within the prison system can be seen in the case of Osime Brown, a severely autistic man who was sentenced to five years imprisonment and now faces a deportation order to Jamaica, where he left at aged four, for attempting to stop the theft of a mobile phone in 2016 when Osime was still a minor. Osime is currently being denied access to Legal Aid by the Home Office, and upon discovering his impending threat of deportation, unwittingly asked his mother Joan, “whether there was a bus he could take from Jamaica to visit her in Dudley.”[7] For more information and updates on Osime’s case, you can follow the Justice for Osime Brown Twitter account here.

Even more shockingly, 50% of UK prisoners are functionally illiterate – half of the UK’s 85,000 prisoners in 2015 demonstrated a reading age of 11 years old or younger.[8] Availability of education within the prison system is, as one might guess, insufficient to varying degrees depending on the individual prison. Out of the 45 prisons inspected by Oftsed in 2018-2019, nearly two-thirds (62%) were deemed inadequate and requiring improvement.[9] This has led to prisons being largely dependent on charity organisations such as Shannon Trust to provide the most basic education to prisoners.

Moreover, adequate provision of books and reading materials is a further obstacle. Prison libraries are drastically understocked and understaffed, with many having to be closed because of understaffing issues. Bizarre rules, such as those set out by the Incentive and Earned Privileges Scheme 2013, prevent prisoners from keeping more than 12 books in their cell, including books sent from outside. In an effort to curb the circulation of drugs in prisons, this scheme also set out to ban prisoners receiving books from outside (although this was ruled as unlawful the following year).[10]These obstacles have only been worsened since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic; in strict lockdown, prisons now operate on a “regime focused purely on preservation of life”[11], meaning inmates now spend an average of 22.5 hours a day in their cell, 7 days a week. Visits are suspended, there is no allotted time in the open air, all meals are served at cell door, and education classes, intervention classes, library access, etc. have been suspended.[12]

In light of these barriers to literature and education, despite the UK spending approximately £4.37 billion on its prison system in 2019/20 (one of the highest amounts in the last ten years)[13], the onus lands on charities such as Books Beyond Bars, Haven and Borderline Books to provide the lifeline of literature to the country’s most disadvantaged. These charities function as abolitionist collectives - for example, Books Beyond Bars is a charity that provides books to incarcerated LGBT+ people, seeking “to shift some control back into the hands of incarcerated people by giving them access to resources of their choosing.”[14] They state that LGBT+ people in prison face “a particularly hard time finding resources that meet their needs and wants” as well as “hardships that can include – but are not limited to – isolation and violence”. The collective “want[s] people to know that there is a supportive community on the outside that cares about their wellbeing”[15].

The importance of literature to incarcerated people is not simply linked to facilitating wider freedom of thought and expression or providing much-needed relief from the boredom of prison life – it quite literally acts as a lifeline, especially to LGBT+ inmates. As well as providing fiction and literature for entertainment value, inmates are often reliant on these charities for essential educational resources like dictionaries for language learning, legal materials and information on sexual health and harm reduction. These materials are critical, especially because people in prison are more likely to be HIV positive. This higher prevalence of HIV behind bars is directly linked to the UK’s punitive approach to drug use, and lack of access to resources such as clean needles and safe injecting sites. The criminalisation of drug use is generally linked to a higher prevalence of shared needles, which significantly increases the risk of contracting HIV. This risk is further exacerbated once in prison, as condom provision in UK prisons is described as “patchy at best, with condom provision banned in Northern Ireland and limited elsewhere”[16]. Lack of information and resources on sexual health puts the already marginalised group of incarcerated LGBT+ people at even greater risk, and this is an important aspect of independent provision of literature within prisons.

The UK, its Ministry of Justice, and the Crown Court are far from innocent, and yet discussion of abolitionist activism is relatively neglected in the UK. So how can we help? With the ultimate goal of prison abolition, how can we support marginalized communities of incarcerated people and help to preserve their dignity and autonomy? Anyone can send books and reading material requested by inmates, as well as postage stamps, through the collective Books Beyond Bars, who maintain an updated spreadsheet of requested titles on their website and social media pages. Lighthouse Books here in Edinburgh offer a discount to anyone purchasing books to send onto the collective. In addition, Books Beyond Bars, Haven Distribution, and Borderline Books all accept one-off donations to cover costs of reading material sent to prisons. Although they are small steps to make, supporting these charities is an easy and inexpensive way to show solidarity with those in prison.


[1] Georgina Sturge, “UK Prison Population Statistics,” House of Commons Library, April 19, 2021, https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn04334/.

[2] “Prison Industrial Complex in the UK,” Community Action on Prison Expansion, accessed April 21, 2021, https://cape-campaign.org/the-prison-industrial-complex-in-the-uk/.

[3] “Prison: The Facts - Bromley Briefings Summer 2019,” Prison Reform Trust, 2019, prisonreformtrust.org.uk.

[4] Georgina Sturge, “UK Prison Population Statistics,” House of Commons Library, April 19, 2021, https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn04334/.

[5] Kim Williams et al., “Prisoners’ Childhood and Family Backgrounds: Results from the Surveying Prisoner Crime Reduction (SPCR) Longitudinal Cohort Study of Prisoners,” https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/ (Ministry of Justice, 2012).

[6] Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, “People with Learning Disabilities and the Criminal Justice System,” Mental Health Foundation, 2012, mentalhealth.org.uk.

[7] “Osime's Story,” autisminjustice.org, accessed April 21, 2021, https://autisminjustice.org/Stories/osime's-story.html.

[8] “Half of Britain's Prisoners Are Functionally Illiterate. Can Fellow Inmates Change That?,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, June 15, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/jun/15/reading-for-freedom-life-changing-scheme-dreamt-up-by-prison-pen-pals-shannon-trust-action-for-equity-award.

[9] “Ofsted Annual Report: a Concerning Picture of Prison Education,” Prisoners' Education Trust, January 22, 2020, https://www.prisonerseducation.org.uk/2020/01/ofsted-annual-report-a-concerning-picture-of-prison-education/.

[10] National Offender Management Service, “Incentives and Earned Privileges,” insidetime.org, 2013.

[11] Ministry of Justice HM Prison and Probation Service, “COVID-19: National Framework for Prison Regimes and Services,” 2020, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/.

[12] Ibid,.

[13] D. Clark, “Prison Spending UK 2020,” Statista, February 3, 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/298654/united-kingdom-uk-public-sector-expenditure-prisons

[14] “Books Beyond Bars UK,” Books Beyond Bars UK, accessed April 21, 2021, https://beyond-bars.org/.

[15] Ibid,.

[16] Ibid,.


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