Comment: Chris Grayling’s tortured defence of the prison book ban is falling apart

By Andrew Neilson

What exactly is the Ministry of Justice rationale for banning family and friends from sending books and other essentials to prisoners, in all but the most exceptional circumstances?  All this week the department's line on the measure, in force since November, has been a moveable feast.

On Monday, Chris Grayling was clear: dramatically restricting prisoners' access to books was all part of his rehabilitation revolution.  Prisoners should have to scrape their pennies together to be able to buy a book every few weeks, or rely on understocked and oversubscribed prison libraries.  This way, they will be incentivised towards good behaviour, even though the ban on family and friends sending in parcels extends to all prisoners, whatever level of the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme they are on.

Mr Grayling's stance was underpinned by a controversial assumption: that people go to prison for punishment, not as punishment.  A right to read, or be sent underwear, by your loved ones, is all grist to the mill of punishment.  The fact that you have your liberty detained by a court of law, that you will spend weeks, months or years locked in a cramped cell and subject to a million institutional restrictions already, is just the baseline of the punishment menu that you will be subjected to.

A robust line, you might say.  But perhaps because the notion that restricting people's access to books as part of a rehabilitation revolution strikes at most people's notion of common sense, it is a line that has blurred since.  For only the next day, the prisons minister and Mr Grayling's able adjutant, Jeremy Wright, was on the Today programme and hinting to Mark Haddon and listeners that the real problem was drugs in parcels.

This line was elaborated upon in some of yesterday's papers.  Unfortunately the journalists in question were sold a pup by the Ministry of Justice.  Pictures of a mobile phone in Weetabix were irrelevant, given that family and friends have never been able to send in foodstuffs to prisoners.  And drugs in stereos was all very interesting but as prisoners order their electronic goods direct from suppliers such as Argos, the relevance again was dubious.

Prisons have received parcels for years and every parcel was searched.  This was not a very onerous task.  In fact, most prisoners are lucky if they have family or friends on the outside to send them books and essentials.  If they did, perhaps they would not offend and we should be doing all we can to strengthen such bonds, not restrict them.  Drugs are a major problem behind bars but there are other ways they are getting into prisons.  There are not many people stupid enough to just put them in the post.

Mr Grayling returned to the fray with a bizarre piece for ConHome alleging a left-wing conspiracy.  The Howard League, a charity of almost 150 years standing and with United Nations consultative status, was dismissed as a "left-wing pressure group", along with other eminent organisations such as English PEN and the Royal Society of Literature.

A more emollient statement was then sent to those who have signed a petition protesting the changes.  Unfortunately, this statement continued to push the line on drugs – adding pornography and extremist materials to the mix.  Again, as of November last year, nobody in the world of prisons was complaining about these things being sent to prisoners in parcels.  The statement to petition signatories also perpetuated a straw man argument that the Ministry of Justice has pushed all along – the only consistent line they've had – which is that there is no blanket ban on books.  Not that we ever said that.  The blanket ban is on family and friends sending books and other essentials into prison.

On Wednesday, Jeremy Wright then suggested that this was not a problem where "prisoners are…sitting around wondering where their next Jane Austen is coming from".  It was disappointing to see a minister patronise the people under his care.  Not all prisoners may want to read Jane Austen but their families and friends should be able to send books to them nonetheless.  Jeremy Wright then went on to say that the real problem was literacy, and of course low literacy rates are a major issue in prison.  Yet again, however, how does restricting access to books help with that one?  Another line that flies in the face of common sense.

Why would the Ministry of Justice find it so hard to stick to a definitive line on this measure, resort to misrepresentation and flirt with falsehood?  Is it because the real reason these petty restrictions have been put in place is out of pure meanness?  Are prisoners and their loved ones once more the whipping boys of politicians on the make?  If these things are not the case, and we certainly hope they are not, then it is time for ministers to acknowledge the unintended consequences of the measure and work with us to put things right.

Andrew Neilson is director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform.

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