Many of you will have seen that since Michael Gove took over from Chris Grayling as Justice Secretary he has removed the limit that prisoners may only have twelve books in possession and has said that they can now be sent in to prisoners from any source. This goes a long way to increasing the opportunities for prisoners to engage in self study, raising literacy levels and reducing the rate of reoffending but it has other effects too.
Being able to receive a simple gift from family can make a massive difference to prisoners, reminding them that they do have people on the outside who love and care about them and who haven’t forgotten them. It can make you feel like you are still part of the family unit even when you are hundreds of miles away and only see each other every other week or so.
But of course, it is better to give than to receive and giving gifts is something which many prisoners find near impossible. Recently this is something I tried to address.
Prisoners generally have just two ways to buy things. The first is through the canteen each week, which includes general items such as food, drink, tobacco, basic stationery, and postage stamps. The second way is to order things through a small range of catalogues. These can only be from “approved suppliers” including Argos, Very, Staples, and Gema Records, and the items you may order must be on the local facilities list of approved items and cannot be otherwise available on the canteen.
Here at HMP Wakefield orders work in much the same way to most prisons. The prisoner must fill out an order form, which is sent to reception who will approve the order after checking that the items ordered are allowed on the facilities list before forwarding it to finance so that they can deduct the money from the prisoner’s account and place the order. When the order arrives reception will log it on the prisoner’s property card and then give it to the prisoner when they sign for it.
However, a few weeks ago I drew up a proposal to introduce a second type of order form here called a ‘Family Gift Order’. The idea is that the form would be very similar to the existing one, but with an extra box which the prisoner is required to sign stating that they understand that they will not be allowed to have the items they order in possession or to retain them in their stored property but they will be expected to either hand the items out on a visit or send them out by post within thirty days of the date they are delivered or the items will be returned to the supplier.
You might wonder what the point of this would be and why prisoners would want to buy something they cannot use and have to get rid of within a month. Well, despite being on very low wages, I have known many prisoners to save most of their pay and send it home to their family. I have also known many prisoners to save up and send money to friends, asking them to buy gifts for their wives and children. But not everyone is able to do this.
My proposal was that family gift orders would enable prisoners to buy any item from an existing approved supplier even if it is not on the facilities list as an authorised item. For example, a prisoner could buy toys for their children at Christmas or jewellery for their partner on their birthday. The items would not be given to the prisoner, but they could be handed out on a visit or sent out by post as a gift.
I am yet to receive an official response to my proposal but I am hopeful that it will be taken up. The benefits are massive. One of the things that used to get to me more than anything was the feeling that I was in a one way relationship and I could not show my partner that I was thinking about her and that I could provide for her, at least on some level. It is a feeling I have even now with other family members. There is a disconnect between what you feel for the people you care about and your ability to actually demonstrate those feelings.
Of course, material, gifts are not the only way to express such love and care, but so many of the other ways are limited by the prison environment that gifts do matter. Communication is curtailed by how much phone credit you are permitted to buy. Physical intimacy is limited by the contact rules in the prison visits room. Engagement in decision making within the home, including the bringing up of your children is severely inhibited by the practicality of being so far away. Sometimes a small gift is the only way a prisoner might have to remind his loved ones that he has not abandoned them and that he really cares.
If this proposal is taken up here I firmly believe that it will help prisoners to maintain positive and constructive relationships with those on the outside. This may increase their motivation to engage within the prison environment, to rehabilitate, and ultimately to lead a law abiding life upon release.
It could make life better for prisoners and their families both day to day and also in terms of their long term well-being.
I will let you all know when I receive an official decision.