With any luck, it will be the last prison book ban protest. At 10:30 this morning, campaigners, actors and writers – including the Howard League, English PEN, Vanessa Redgrave and Horrid Henry author Francesca Simon – will gather outside the Ministry of Justice to call for the restrictions to be lifted quickly, so prisoners can receive books in time for Christmas.
The government has until tomorrow to decide if it will appeal the high court decision last Friday that the book ban is unlawful. With a small army of barristers, solicitors and civil servants turning up to court to fight the ban, it has already spent quite enough taxpayers' money on this misguided and unpleasant campaign. It should instead accept defeat and cancel the ban in time for the break, when prisoners spend more time than usual in their cells due to low staff levels.
But even if the Ministry of Justice acts with greater decency than we have come to expect from it, it will not be scrapping the general ban on parcels being sent into prisons, of which the book ban is one aspect. This is a cruel and muddleheaded policy. It prevents the 200,000 children with a parent behind bars from sending in a present and gets in the way of the familial relations which provide the best chance of cutting reoffending.
Families can't send in stationery for prisoners to keep in touch with them. They can't send in magazines or additional warm clothes, or even underwear. Bafflingly – and one really does wonder on what possible basis this decision could have been made – the Ministry of Justice has introduced a limit to the number of items of underwear prisoners can have in their cells. The Prison Reform Trust says several women prisoners have contacted them saying they cannot get hold of enough underwear to stay hygienic during their period.
Elderly and disabled prisoners are often unable to get hold of enough stationery to keep them occupied during the Christmas break. Before the ban on parcels, they could be sent packs of cards, board games or magazines by friends and family.
A series of arguments have been put forward to defend this ban, starting with security and ending with preventing extremism. But that was not the argument at the time. When it was brought in, the Ministry of Justice argument was that this was to make prisoners 'earn' their privileges. As prison guards themselves have said, there was never a problem conducting security checks on parcels.
The Ministry of Justice insists prisoners can now buy these items from the prison shop, which is run by a private firm and turns a profit by selling goods to prisoners. But it's a nonsense. Working prisoners earn an average of £10 a week. But there aren't enough jobs to go round and many earn as little as £2.50. From this, they have to pay for phone calls, TV rental, additional food and toiletries.
Authorities say they believe in family contact as a way to break the reoffending cycle. But why then do they charge prisoners 20p a minute to call mobiles or 9p a minute to call a landline?
As Howard League chief executive Frances Crook said:
"In this season of giving, surely the parcel ban can be relaxed further so that prisoners are able to receive underwear and other essentials, as well as small, hand-made gifts from their children. This would help to alleviate distress in prisons at a time when they are in crisis."
There is one idea at the heart of the Ministry of Justice policies and our approach to prison at Christmas. It's about whether we give up on people. Of course, many people behind bars have committed terrible crimes. Others have committed lots of minor crimes. Some have even committed victimless crimes. Whichever category they fall into, cutting them off from society leaves them with nothing to lose. And people with nothing to lose only go downwards. It's investment – in family, training, education and work – which gives people the reasons to stop committing crime.
Removing books from prisoners, forcing them to wear dirty underwear, making it expensive to stay in contact with their families – this is a dehumanisation process. It is giving up on people. It's this kind of attitude that leads the justice secretary to describe a 69% rise in prison suicides as a "blip".
So while it may not be fashionable or popular to do so, it is worth caring about what prisons are like at Christmas.
As Brian Gowans, chaplaincy adviser to the Scottish Prison Service, said:
"It's a tough time. What you tend to find is that many prisoners get through it by trying to make it as normal and ordinary a day as possible – that's a very common coping mechanism. So you see people who try desperately to just do exactly what they always do, without making any concessions at all to the fact that it's December 25th. There's a lot of sadness in a prison on Christmas Day. You're always cut off when you're in jail, but you never feel more cut off than on December 25th. It's a day when you’re in no doubt at all about what it means to be in prison."