Island Life by David Slack

But don't attach a file

Each Sunday afternoon, after the inmates have watched the old re-runs of the original Star Trek and had their game of Touch, Tim Selwyn opens up the library at Unit 8, Hawkes Bay Prison.

Convicted fraudster, political prisoner, librarian. Some of the best New Zealand blogging you'll read this year is coming from a prison cell.

He wrote recently that the library is a meagre collection, offering fewer than 100 books. There are more, locked in another room, but in the world he describes, most processes are glacial, even the unlocking of a door. Until they can get at the good stuff, they have Wilbur Smith, Readers Digest condensed novels, and 80s paperback fiction to keep them going.

Half of the Stephen Kings have had the last couple of pages torn out of them as well as parts of the covers cut into to provide rigid ends to rolly cigarettes, or "other cigarettes".

Understandably, he hopes readers might like to send him any old books and magazines they can spare. I'm happy to do my bit. I will be sending him copies of Bullshit Backlash and Bleeding Hearts, and - perhaps against my better judgment - I will also be sending copies of Civil War and Other Optimistic Predictions to a man presently incarcerated by the State for sedition. I could inscribe these books with the admonition that they are intended for reading rather than for use as weapons of rioting or as tools for the smoking of prohibited substances, although Comrade Trotter would possibly not object to the notion of my 'intellectually indefensible' little book being dismantled a page at a time and slowly burned.

Knowledge has always had great value. The mediaeval libraries chained their books to the furniture. Affluence, the printing press and falling production costs changed things comprehensively, but not with quite as much as finality as one might hope. A couple of years ago Salinas, California almost became the first city in the United States to completely close down its entire library system. This, in the home of the John Steinbeck Library. Talk about your grapes of wrath growing heavy for the vintage.

Books are our friends, and a prisoner with a book in his hands is your friend too. Every post on Tumeke from prisoner number 60477981 brings a fresh volley of catcalls from 'anonymous" and his/her friends: stop your whining / you should have thought of that before you ripped off the taxpayer, as if the whole dismal experience can be salved by writing about it in a blog.

Amongst the bitter venom and Bomber Bradbury manfully fending it all off, there is the odd visiting voice of wisdom.

'1whoknows' wrote recently:

I'm an educated ex-con….
I got sent to prison for something I didn't do (the "complainant" later recanted entirely and I was booted out without so much as "sorry" from the system).

Prison for those of us not stupid is incredibly boring. Unless you want to talk about drugs and your place in the gang hierarchy it's a total waste of time. I offered to teach other prisoners to read and write. "Regulations" prevented that - I was made to work in the laundry. Because protected prisoners worked in the laundry, other prisoners would deliberately shit their underwear and even their bedsheets to "get at" people.

Violence, or the threat thereof, was a constant companion. In maximum security (Tim is in minimum) I saw one person bashed unconscious and left almost dead a few feet from where I was eating dinner and countless others less seriously bashed.

I saw no one turn their life around after getting out. I saw plenty of people resigned to returning - not those who commit violent crimes, who certainly deserve to return to protect the rest of society (even though we also fail them in not offering rehabilitation) but ordinary people overwhelmed by extraordinary circumstances.

I come here regularly to marvel at the uninformed and contradictory nonsense from that element that see nothing amiss in an opinion that runs along the lines of "prison is a bloody picnic, a holiday home, a hotel... throw more of the bastards in there immediately".

And yes, the other forgotten group in this debate are the "screws". Most I found to be washed out, demoralised and past caring, but also fair and decent. A handful I found truly amazing - dedicated, decent people determined to help those who deserved it, doing a good job in bad circumstances, and as much at the mercy of inept, small-minded prison administrators as those they were meant to guard.

Please send your books and magazines to:
Tim Selwyn
Librarian/Unit 8
Hawkes Bay Prison
Private Bag 1600
Napier, NZ