By Frances Crook
New rules introduced by the justice secretary ban anyone sending in books to prisoners. From now on, any man, woman or child in prison will not be able to receive a book from outside. This is part of an increasingly irrational punishment regime orchestrated by Chris Grayling that grabs headlines but restricts education or rehabilitation.
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 the outside.
Last November new rules were introduced so that families are no longer permitted to send in small items to prisoners. Children are not allowed to send a homemade birthday card. Prisoners with a particular expertise or interests cannot receive magazines, no matter how innocuous it might be to want to know about bird watching or steam trains.
The rules apply to clothing too. Prisoners are no longer permitted to have underwear sent in and so have to wear pants and socks worn by many other people. Women prisoners are particularly hard hit by this rule as they are not provided with a uniform and are dependent on family for underwear and outerwear. If underwear cannot be sent in, women are forced to wear the same pants and bras for months.
Book banning is in some ways the most despicable and nastiest element of the new rules. 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.
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. 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.
Of course prisons should have incentives schemes to reward good behaviour. But punishing reading is as nasty as it is bizarre.
Frances Crook is chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, the oldest penal reform charity in the United Kingdom.
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