Comment: Grayling’s book ban excuses just don’t wash

By Caroline Lucas

Last week, the secretary of state for justice wrote an article on the Conservative Home website to try and defend the decision to put a blanket ban on parcels being sent to prisoners, thereby preventing inmates receiving books in the post.

His article starts with a rather shouty headline: "We have not, repeat not, banned books from prison".  It ends with a strident declaration that he's doing something "right-wing" to tackle reoffending. In the middle there are a set of contradictory positions.  It all sounds a bit like Mr Mackay from Porridge.

The extraordinary array of different people who oppose this restriction, including Gareth Davies, former governor of Pentonville prison, Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, Salman Rushdie, Mary Beard, Alan Bennett, Jeffrey Archer, Carol Ann Duffy, Ian McEwan (the list goes on and on), fully understand the policy.  We are asking the secretary of state and lord chancellor to reconsider the prison service instruction that limits books being sent to prisoners from family and friends.

Chris Grayling’s defence seems to consist of three lines.

Line One: "Nothing to do with me, guv."  That one sounds more like the Porridge hero, Fletcher.  The suggestion is this wasn't a deliberate policy.  The secretary of state protests that he has had no meetings about the policy. In fact the only meeting he's had about books in prison is one where he says it's fine to let women prisoners read 50 Shades of Grey.

The logic of this seems to be this wasn't a calculated policy to restrict access to books, they just hadn't thought the implications through.  So because there was no malice and they didn't realise what they were doing, that makes it OK.  But it's not ok.  The lack of thought is a form of malice and the justice secretary has been told what's wrong with the policy now.

This leads to Line Two, encapsulated by a sarky question: "So hands up who thinks we should make it easier to smuggle drugs into prison?"  It's apparently a security measure.

But Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officer's Association, says the secretary of state's insistence that prison guards could not scan parcels for drugs or other contraband is ridiculous. He told this website:

"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."

So then we move on to Line Three.  The moral line – that books are a luxury and a privilege that need to be earned.  This seems to undermine the suggestion that this was not a deliberate decision about books.  Leaving that aside, there are two problems with treating books as a reward.  The first is that access to books is essential to mental well-being.  Books are a necessity, not a luxury. 

The other problem with the 'earn it' policy is that this ignores the impact that someone else's encouragement can have.  The positive impact that a gift of a book can have is quashed by this short-sighted policy. 

This month is the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists in April 1914.  In a powerful article for the Mirror last week, Ricky Tomlinson told of how that book changed his life when someone gave him a copy in prison in the 1970s.  Without that gift, he wouldn't have read the book. 

A gift of a book can change not just what you read but who you become. 

If it's consistency across the prison estate that the justice secretary wants, he should be making sure all prisoners can and do receive gifts of books instead of ensuring no-one can.

Caroline Lucas is the former leader of the Green party and MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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