Prison book ban: The questions Chris Grayling must answer

Last night, Chris Grayling wrote a piece for defending his ban on prisoners being sent books. Here we highlight the questions and inconsistencies raised by his response.

"Let's be clear about one thing: prisoners' access to reading material is not being curtailed."

This statement simply cannot be true, by virtue of the reforms Grayling has himself implemented. Section 10.4 of the  Incentives and Earned Privileges guidelines reads: "To ensure that the Incentive Earned Privileges scheme is not undermined the general presumption will be that items for prisoners will not be handed in or sent in by their friends or families unless there are exceptional circumstances." Because these items include books and magazine subscriptions, it is simply a matter of fact that prisoners' access to reading material has been curtailed. The justice secretary is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

"All prisoners may at any one time have up to 12 books in their cells. All prisoners have access to the library, irrespective of which institution they are being held in."

At no point has anyone denied that prisoners still had access to prison libraries. As Frances Crook wrote in the piece which sparked the row: "Prison libraries are supplied and funded by local authorities and have often been surprisingly good, but so many libraries are now closing and cutting costs that inevitably the first service to feel the pinch is in prison." Prison libraries are subject to spendings cuts and are naturally very limited in what they have to offer.

Furthermore, with budget cuts hitting the prison system, there are frequently not enough prison officers to take prisoners to the library, leaving many inmates having to wait days before they can make a visit.

"If a prisoner has engaged with their own rehabilitation in prison, then he will be on a higher level in the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, and so would have more money to spend – on books if he so chooses."

Although he later goes on to briefly make the case for the role of reading in improving literacy, this sentence shows that Grayling fundamentally views books as a reward, not a part of the rehabilitation process.

In recent days authors have celebrated fiction's ability to improve empathy and imagination. This is plainly true, but the reason reading can play such a fundamental role in rehabilitation is more sombre: at least two-thirds of ex-offenders have the literacy and numeracy levels of an 11-year-old. Work is the best route out of criminality, but this leaves them virtually unemployable. Any reading material at all is a benefit for inmates because it makes them more able to survive in society without recourse to crime.  Any restriction on prisoners' reading is unacceptable.

The ban on parcels also serves to desocialise and dehumanise inmates in a way which does nothing to improve their prospects once they leave jail. Within a month of the rules coming into force, inmates were denied Christmas parcels from their family. The 200,000 children in England and Wales with a parent in prison were no longer able to even send them a Christmas present. What possible good could come of such a policy, especially given the strong arguments that connection to the family helps mitigate against reoffending? Authorities should be facilitating strong family bonds, not standing in the way of them.

Even the more superficial restrictions resulting from the ban – such as preventing inmates receiving underwear – have a negative psychological effect. Forcing inmates to sit in the same underwear for days on end serves to dehumanise them and breeds a siege mentality against authorities.

Prisoners earn an average of £8 a week on prison jobs, a sum which rises to an average of £10-£15 when the limited amount of money which may be sent from home is included. With this they must pay for everything, from coffee and toothpaste to entertainment. It does not leave much money for books, even for the most literary-minded inmate.

"It was never the case that prisoners were simply allowed unlimited parcels – books or otherwise. Such a situation would never have been secure or practical. What has happened is that we have introduced consistency across the estate."

By "consistency across the estate", Grayling simply means a blanket ban. It is an unhelpful euphemism.

His reliance on the security implications on parcels is simply an admission of defeat. Instead of ensuring a decent screening system was imposed on prison parcels, he has thrown up his hands and simply banned everything – including books and magazines and underwear. It is not beyond the wit of man to ensure prisoners could receive books while ensuring the parcels are screened.

"We believe offenders need to behave well and engage in their own rehabilitation if they are to earn privileges and incentives. We want them to be doing more work, getting skills and training, not lying around watching television."

Ironically, it is Grayling himself who is responsible for encouraging this type of mentality. Prisoners often spend up to 20 hours a day in their cells during the week and can be locked up from Friday lunchtime to Monday morning over weekends. Grayling is facing a crisis of underfunding and overpopulation in the prison service. He is now paying penalties for overcrowding private prisons – a charge for every prisoner. It is a cheaper and less visible alternative to using police station cells. The ratio of inmates to prison officers is growing dangerously vast and the consequence of it is that inmates spend more time cooped up in their cells.

In this situation, providing things for prisoners to do is a security response as much as it is a rehabilitation one. But it also provides at least the possibility of prisoners doing something more useful to their development while they're locked up.

The argument against the book ban is not necessarily an argument against a privileges system. It merely states that privileges should not include basic items like underwear, or beneficial items like books, but should instead be restricted to genuine luxuries, such as video game consoles.

"If we can get prisoners to start to change their behaviour while they are inside, we stand more of a chance of getting off the depressing merry-go-round of crime, incarceration and reoffending. Manifestly, none of that is about stopping prisoners having access to reading material."

This is a fascinating statement, in which the justice secretary appears to argue against his own position. Preventing access to reading material indeed does nothing to help get prisoners off the "depressing merry-go-round of crime". So why weren't books and magazines excluded from the parcel ban?

"The truth is this: reoffending rates have hardly changed for a decade"

Again, Grayling is massaging the truth. In fact, probation service has managed to get reoffending rates down to 34.2% after a decade of steady year-on-year decline. It is a minor success story in a difficult area of public policy. This was an area of limited but verifiable  public policy success, although Grayling ignored that trend when he privatised vast swathes of the probation service. The incentives scheme was a response to tabloid pressure on the prison system being insufficiently draconian, not reoffending rates.

"With each new offence communities are being blighted and more victims of crime are suffering. Are we really saying we just want to continue doing 'more of the same', without trying to do something about that?"

It takes a very special mind to think that the problem with the prison service is inmates' access to books.

"Wilfully stoking up misconceptions about what were are doing in prisons, and what we are trying to achieve with those changes… doesn't help anyone, least of all those whose offending behaviour it is that we are trying to stop."

Grayling ends with a final accusation of critics wilfully misleading the public. This is a key element of the Ministry of Justice's responce to the row. It is a straw man argument, designed to over-inflate the case against him so he can defeat it. But the facts of the matter are clear: the government is curtailing prisoners' access to reading material. It would be better if officials at least addressed the heart of the matter, rather than fighting imaginary arguments on points which their critics never made.