The MoJ inadvertently disproves Grayling prison book ban defence

Chris Grayling has a fistful of excuses for the prisoner book ban.

The most consistent of these is that it would be impossible for prisons to allow a free flow of parcels to inmates.

In a letter to the Poet Laureate, the justice secretary wrote:

"There have always been pretty tight rules about the receipt of parcels in prisons, under both this government and the last one.

"There is good reason for this. Our prison staff fight a constant battle to prevent illicit items, such as drugs, extremist materials, mobile phones, Sim cards and pornography getting into our prisons.

"I'm afraid that it is inconceivable that we could impose the additional operational burden on our staff of carrying out detailed assessments of an unlimited number of parcels coming into prisons.

"This is something that has never happened before and could not happen now."

In private conversation, otherwise critical MPs say they sympathise with the logistical security nightmare of parcels being sent into prisons. It's this issue which has prevented several of them taking a tougher stance against Grayling.

Unfortunately, it's nonsense – as the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has inadvertently admitted.

Last week, shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan asked justice minister Jeremy Wright what types of contraband were found in items of post being received by prisoners in the last four years.

This was Wright's reply:

"The number of individual items of post sent to prisoners is not recorded by prison establishments. Finds of contraband are recorded on a central incident reporting system as either a drug-related incident or a miscellaneous incident. In order to establish the number and type of contraband found in post received by prisoners, in each of the last four years, would require the interrogation of over 62,000 individual electronic incident files. This could be achieved only at disproportionate cost."

This is the standard government response to something it does not want to talk about: It simply does not record it. Then it cannot be forced to reveal it.

But the fact the MoJ took zero interest in how much contraband was being smuggled into prisons using parcels suggests this may not have been as big a problem as Grayling was making out.

If the MoJ elected not to track it, one can only conclude it wasn't much of an issue.

That corresponds to what we've heard from prison staff, who were surprised to learn that they had struggled so much with parcels.

Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, said:

"For decades prison officers have dealt with parcels. They searched them.

"The reality is it was never really a problem. Now and then people tried to smuggle drugs in that way. But as professional prison officers we found these items.

"The majority of these books and magazines that came in didn't have any drugs in them at all.

"People have been having their books sent in for 20, 30 years and now all of a sudden it's become a big issue for the secretary of state."

Not content with this level of misdirection, Grayling's people sent sympathetic newspapers photos of contraband being smuggled into prisons through parcels. The most prominent of the photos, which led their relevant pieces in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, was of some hash buried in a hollowed out Weetabix.

Grayling said:

"The routes used to try to do so are wide-ranging and ingenious. We see drugs and weapons sewn into the lining of shoes, concealed in clothes, and hidden in essential household items.

"We have even seen drugs concealed inside a hollowed out Weetabix."

What was not mentioned by the MoJ or the newspapers is that it was already illegal to send prisons food, or bring in food during a visit – and had been since 1998.

It's unutterable, made-up, desperate nonsense.

Before November it was up to individual prison governors to decide on their parcel policy. Grayling overruled that and imposed a blanket ban. He has been unable to show any demand for the action, which runs against the Tories' reported commitment to devolving power away from the centre.

Grayling might be able to defend his ban on the basis of "right-wing solutions" to reoffending. He has done a pitiful job so far, but good luck to him. But let's not pretend it has anything to do with prison security.