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Backlash grows over prisoner 'book ban'

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Justice secretary Chris Grayling has come under fire for his controversial decision to ban prisoners from being sent books.

The ruling came to light in an angry comment piece written by Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, on politics.co.uk this weekend.

Crook highlighted new regulations introduced in November, which mean families are no longer allowed to send small parcels to detainees. This covers everything from books to magazines, homemade cards and even items such as underwear.

The rules were introduced as part of system of privileges and incentives that are intended to make prisoners work for and engage in their own rehabilitation. Under the new system, prisoners do still have access to libraries (and can keep books in their cells), but the qualities of these vary massively and they are suffering from the same cuts that are affecting public library services across the UK.

Crook blasted the ruling as "irrational, nasty and bizarre."

"Book banning is in some ways the most despicable and nastiest element of the new rules," she wrote. "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.

"Of course prisons should have incentives schemes to reward good behaviour. But punishing reading is as nasty as it is bizarre," she added.

Justice secretary Chris Grayling

Since then, a number of authors and commentators including Caitlin Moran, Mariella Frostrup and Mary Beard have added their voice to a growing chorus of disapproval:

Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, has branded the decision to ban books being sent to prisoners "a malign and pointless extra punishment which is not only small-minded but desperately counterproductive". Phillip Pullman told the Guardian the new rules were "loathsome and revolting."

"It comes from the mind of a man with the outlook of the sort of school bully who is indulged and favoured by the teachers, who can see perfectly well how noxious his behaviour is, but allow it to continue on the grounds that at least he's keeping order," he said.

A petition launched this week calling on Grayling to "urgently review and amend your new rules which restrict prisoners access to books and family items" has already attracted over 11,000 signatories.

The library at high security HM Prison Belmarsh in Woolwich

In a response piece written yesterday, Grayling defended his decision and insisted it was an important part of a new rehabilitation push to lower reoffending rates (unchanged for a decade).

"Let's be clear about one thing: prisoners' access to reading material is not being curtailed. All prisoners may at any one time have up to 12 books in their cells," he said.

"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.

"We believe offenders need to behave well and engage in their own rehabilitation if they are to earn privileges and incentives," he added. The truth is this: reoffending rates have hardly changed for a decade – and indeed those for short sentenced prisoners are unacceptably high, with almost 60% of those sentenced to less than 12 months returning to crime within a year. 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?"

But his critics pointed to the fact that the ban from prisoners being sent books may affect legal texts, at a time when legal aid in the UK is also being cut - as are library services.

Crook emphasised the impact the ban may have on young offenders.

"An inspection report published on March 18th on Wetherby prison, which holds 180 young boys, praised the jail for only containing the children in their cells for 16 hours a day during the week and 20 hours a day at weekends," she wrote. "Whilst many will not want to read a book to pass these endless hours, many boys I have met in prison do indeed read avidly."

What do you think? Is the ban on prisoners being sent books a practical move that helps inmates work for their rehabilitation via a reward system - or is it a petty and counter-productive decision? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments section below.

Words: Anna Brech, Photos: Rex Features

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