Prison book ban: Protestors hold up Crime and Punishment as Grayling gives evidence

Chris Grayling's session in front of the justice committee was framed by protestors holding up copies of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment from the public gallery today.

The protest against the ban on inmates being sent books took place in silence as the justice secretary answered questions on a range of issues, including prison overcrowding, assault in jail and the Human Rights Act.

"This dignified show of support for our campaign highlights the distress that has been caused by the draconian Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme in prisons," Howard League for Penal Reform chief executive Frances Crook said.

"As families and friends are now forbidden from sending basic items into prison, prisoners are lying in overcrowded cells, wearing dirty clothes, with nothing to do and possibly not even a book to read.

"When leading authors asked for an opportunity to raise their concerns over this issue, the justice secretary refused to meet with them.

"It is regrettable that it takes a concerted display of Dostoyevsky novels to get his attention at a time when there is growing unrest in prison and an alarming rise in suicides behind bars."

The session saw Grayling come under sustained questioning about rising levels of self harm, assault and suicide behind bars. MPs also raised fears that prison overcrowding, a draconian new regime and reduced staff numbers could spark disorder over the summer.

"You were warned, but it's only now you're rushing out an emergency measure to recruit the very staff you let off a few months ago," John McDonnell told the justice secretary.

Grayling replied: "It's worth remembering what prison overcrowding means. It means prisoners have to share a cell. That is not a big problem."

Grayling repeatedly insisted prison overcrowding was falling, but he conceded that the proportion of prisoners to prison officers is increasing.

He also accepted that use of the tactical response group to disorder in prisons had increased by 57%.