Over the weekend at Oz Comic-Con in Adelaide, Australia, actor (and book aficionado) Benedict Cumberbatch was quoted as saying that “prisoners should be given books," encouraging the audience to "send books to prisoners.”
While Americans (like me) may have first thought their favourite TV detective was just being considerate of those serving time behind bars, and others believed it a call for compassion from an actor to his ever-increasing number of fans, news-savvy audience members (especially those in the UK) knew better. This wasn’t just an “Oh, isn’t he thoughtful!” moment, but a call to action and criticism of a current situation.
However, before you go through your bookshelves or do your spring cleaning and box up volumes to drop off at the nearest detention center, let me fill you in a bit so you can find the best way to follow Cumberbatch’s advice.
In the world of British politics, Chris Grayling is a particularly newsworthy man of the moment, the “British Conservative Party politician who has been the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice since 2012” (Wikipedia) UK readers likely already know about Grayling – and how much, er, attention he’s gained from authors recently, including an open letter published in the Daily Telegraph on March 25.
Grayling is the face of the so-called “book ban” in prisons in England and Wales, (introduced in November 2013) which forbids prisoners receiving parcels from family or friends (which includes books). He's defended the move, stating that prison libraries are available, and books can be ordered if necessary. Opponents of the ban believe books are NOT a luxury item, the logistics of transporting prisoners regularly to the on-site library are challenging at best – and that the current process of screening parcels received at a prison finds any contraband material that might be concealed. In short, critics from all corners want the ban lifted. Only time and talk will tell.
In the meantime, what can you do to support literacy and a love of reading to those who are incarcerated? Aside from signing a petition on Change.org to request a review/amendment to the current ban, you can do more.
In the UK, one option for book lovers to get reading material into the hands of prisoners is Haven Distribution, located in London http://www.havendistribution.org.uk/. A press release on their site states (in part):
“Haven has been sending books to prisoners since 1996 and despite Chris Grayling's recent restriction on sending free books to prisoners, as a charity set up for this purpose we shall remain committed to do so.”
From Haven’s website, you can donate funds via cheque, money order or PayPal, as well as use their link to shop on Amazon, where they receive 5% in referral fees from every purchase: http://astore.amazon.co.uk/havendistribu-21.
In the US, rules and regulations vary by state. A national directory (last updated 9/2013) is available here: http://www.prisonbookprogram.org/resources/other-books-to-prisoners-programs/, but those with books to donate should contact the program closest to them via phone or e-mail first.
Founded in the early 1970s, Books to Prisoners (a volunteer program based in Seattle, WA), is another option, offering people the chance to volunteer, donate funds - or books. Similar to Haven in the UK, using their link to shop on the US Amazon site, the non-profit earns a 5% referral fee. They receive over 1,000 requests each month from prisoners asking for dictionaries, thesauruses and history books, as well as popular fiction and non-fiction.
So, there you have it: The issue at hand, why Benedict brought the issue to fans’ attention - and what you can do to help. We aren’t condoning any actions taken by the inmates. We are encouraging them to be more, believing in the power of the written word to transform and transport any reader willing to turn the page.