ConDem Justice ministers have defended their ban on sending books to prisoners in England and Wales, saying it is integral to a new system of rewards and punishments.
The ban on books being sent to prisoners by families and friends is part of a new “incentives and earned privileges” regime, introduced last November by justice secretary Chris Grayling, which allows prisoners access to funds to buy books and other items as they move up from “basic” level.
Many prominent writers are opposed to the ban.
Philip Pullman tweeted: “It’s one of the most disgusting, mean, vindictive acts of a barbaric government.”
The crime novelist Rankin said: “From visits to prisons and talking to prisoners, I know how important books can be in promoting literacy and connecting prisoners to society.”
Bragg tweeted: “People in prison need rehabilitation, not retribution. Coalition bans guitars, now deny prisoners books.”
The Booker prize-shortlisted novelist Grant said she was organising a protest against the rule, while Beard said: “Books educate and rehabilitate. Crazy to ban them being sent to prisoners in jail as Lord Chancellor is reported.”
The growing protest followed a Blog by Frances Crook, the director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, highlighting the changes in the incentives and privileges regime. Crook said banning books was in some ways “the most despicable and nastiest element” of the new rules.
She said: “The rules governing possessions of prisoners are arcane and not consistently applied by every prison. These new restrictions relate to a downgrading of the system of rewards and punishments, ostensibly designed to encourage prisoners to comply with prison rules.
“Yet the ban on receiving books is a blanket decision, so no matter how compliant and well behaved you are, no prisoner will be allowed to receive books from outside.”
Crook said prison libraries were not a satisfactory alternative as they were supplied and funded by local authorities, many of which were now closing and cutting costs. A spokeswoman for the MoJ denied that any prison libraries had closed.
Banning books being sent to prisoners risks increasing reoffending rates, the UCU has warned.
The government has come under attack for limiting the amount of reading material that can be taken into prison, with the UCU saying research shows that prisoners who do not take part in education are three times more likely to be re-convicted than those that do. The union said that it would be unforgiveable if the government was to remove one of the key tools to stopping prisoners from reoffending.
A host of leading writers, including Philip Pullman and Linda Grant, have attacked the move by justice secretary Chris Grayling. The Howard League for Penal Reform has described the plan as “nasty and bizarre.”
The move has also been condemned by the University and College Union (UCU). A study by UCU and the Institute of Education last month revealed worrying problems with prison education. The report said the power of prison educators to help offenders turn their lives around was being “squandered” due to constant re-tendering for teaching contracts.
Pat Harrington, Director of the Third Way think tank commented:
UCU said the last thing prisoners needed was the government making it harder to access books or education. The union said books should be seen as a key building block of education and cutting recidivism, not a privilege.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “Education is the greatest tool we have to stem the flow of people returning to prison. It would be unforgiveable if the government made accessing education harder through a ban on books. Books are a key building block of education and cutting reoffending rates, not just a privilege.
“The alternative to prisoners receiving books from family and friends is spending most of their weekly allowance on a book and, with the best will in the world, that isn’t going to happen very often. Ministers need to urgently rethink this plan and work to cut reoffending rates, as we all pay if people go back and forth through a revolving door of incarceration.”
Pat Harrington, Director of the Third Way think tank, commented:
“As someone who sends books to prisoners in the US (and would like to in the UK!) I feel that this is a bad move. I try to think about who I am sending the book to and what will help or interest them. I am sure others do the same. This level of tailoring is not going to be present if books are taken from a general library which may lack choice. It should surely be possible for friends and family to send in books in a way which is integrated into the system of rewards for good behaviour. After prisoners have read the books they could be donated to the prison library as a means of improving the stock there. It seems that the government have not fully thought this through.”