Comment: Grayling has shown his true colours with prison book ban

By Sadiq Khan

Prison is a punishment. Depriving someone of their liberty so they can't go shopping, can't spend time with their family, can't go down the pub with their mates is one of the most important powers in the gift of the state. But unfortunately it's a power the state needs. It's an undeniable fact that we live in a society where people do bad things – sometimes so bad that being sent to prison is the only option.

But being in prison also provides a big chunk of time when something can be done to put people back on the straight and narrow. We know that 90% of those behind bars today will be free, walking the streets, within a decade. No-one wants these people to go on to commit more crime, create more victims and more human misery. One crime is obviously too many, but we must also do all we can to make sure the first crime is the last crime.

We know a lot more than we used to about the best ways to stop re-offending. For example, the best prisons already deliver programmes to tackle prisoners’ underlying problems, such as mental illness and addiction. But we know it's also crucial that prisons give offenders the right sorts of skills and social networks so that on the outside they can secure a job, a home and a family – the core ingredients for a settled, law-abiding life.

But the odds are tough. Prisons are full of life's outliers. We know this as the stats are startling. Two-fifths of those behind bars have a reading age of an 11-year-old, 59% regularly truanted from school and 42% were expelled. Almost half have no qualifications whatsoever. And these are just the statistics on education. Listing these depressing statistics isn't to excuse criminality but to show the mountain to climb if we're to equip prisoners with the things they need to stop a drift back into a life of crime on their release.

That's why reading is so crucial and why Chris Grayling's books-for-prisoners policy has got him in hot water, with even some Tory MPs criticising his approach. Yet this particular policy has exposed the wider mess the government has got themselves into on prisons and rehabilitation. It was only four years ago that the Tories championed a more compassionate Conservatism and talked of a rehabilitation revolution delivered through small, local prisons centred on work, education and skills.

Yet, four years on, and things have now reached such a low that Chris Grayling holds up Oakwood Prison – a jail whose performance was damned by the chief inspector, saying it was easier to get drugs than soap – as his blueprint for the whole estate. And to make matters worse, on Chris Grayling's watch, prisons are more violent, more overcrowded and increasingly short staffed. This is a toxic cocktail that makes rehabilitation an even remoter prospect with prisoners idling away their time locked in cells or on landings. So bad have things got that the government even gave up capturing the data on purposeful activity in 2012 to hide embarrassment at their terrible record.

The fact of the matter is Chris Grayling has shown no interest in rehabilitation in our jails. Instead, he's put all his eggs in one basket with his reckless, half-baked privatisation of probation, while letting the prison estate deteriorate. He thinks through-the-gate rehabilitation support for prisoners is when they are leaving jail, rather than when they first arrive. He has no answers to some of the big challenges such as how to stop drugs and contraband getting into jails. He's given up on drug-free wings, while seemingly pushing book-free wings.

In spite of this, charities and organisations are trying their hardest, against the odds, to do something about the literacy problems in our jails. I pay tribute to them. I have seen firsthand the excellent work done in a reading group in, for example, Wandsworth Prison in my constituency. But it's small scale, and is bows and arrows against the lightning given the sheer size of the problem. We need much, much more of this, not a justice secretary who thinks reading books is a luxury.

Let's face it, Chris Grayling has shown his true colours with this policy. He's not interested in a rehabilitation revolution. Prisoners made to use their time behind bars for education, training and skills isn't a priority for him. All he's interested in is playing to the gallery and he measures the success of his policies by the column inches he generates. But he has no plan to reduce re-offending, cut crime or stop people becoming victims, which is one of many reasons why 2015 will be a high stakes election. We can't afford another five more years of such short-sightedness.

Sadiq Khan is the shadow justice secretary.

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