Friday 23 January 2015

Two Cheers for the End of the Book Ban!

As regular readers will know, I’ve been following the saga surrounding the prohibition on the posting in of books to prisoners with considerable interest. The recent High Court decision that struck down the inclusion of books within the revised Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme reflected the deep unease that the whole matter has rightly generated.

The Howard League for Penal Reform and its many supporters, including politicians, journalists, authors, ex-prisoners and members of the general public, have made sterling efforts in bringing this issue to national and international attention. The campaign became a genuine cause célèbre of 2014 and raised public awareness of some of the nasty and often irrational things that go on inside our prisons as a result of poor policy-making by politicians and their sidekicks in the civil service.

PSI 30/2013: ban on books by post
I’ve noted in previous blog posts that I’ve seen at first-hand how this vindictive and counter-productive regulation was imposed via Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013. I’ve also witnessed its negative impact on the lives of many inmates, especially those who really want to improve their knowledge and reading skills or to study for external qualifications, so the news that the ban on family, friends and external organisations sending books will end is to be welcomed.

Moreover, cons earning £8 or £9 a week, assuming that they can even get work in our overcrowded prisons, are rarely going to be able to purchase books for themselves using their own meagre resources. Access to prison libraries is also often highly restricted, in part owing to current staff shortages. All this was highlighted in detail in the High Court judgement handed down by Mr Justice Collins in December.

My main concern, however, is that – as usual – the devil will be in the detail. So far, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) doesn’t appear to have issued any instructions to prison governors about how the lifting of the ban on posting in books from 1st February will actually work in practice. 

I’ve cautioned previously that I very much doubt that prison security departments will start accepting parcels sent in directly by families and friends of inmates. Many establishments didn’t allow this for years prior to PSI 30/2013 coming into force on 1 September 2013. In fact, I’ve only really been in one prison – ironically an awful Cat-B local – which regularly gave permission for prisoners to have books posted in from home. Even then, each specific book title requested had to be pre-approved via the submission of a written general app (application) to the wing manager.

Was it a crime to ban book posting?
There was no option for well-wishers on the outside to suddenly post in a book they thought a con might enjoy. There were no nice surprises on birthdays or at Christmas. The process was bureaucratic and in some cases apps could take weeks to get back with ‘approved’ scrawled across them. To be fair, I never had any title refused, but everything took time.

The great advantage of this particular nick’s system was that once you had the written permission in your hand, you could phone home and ask a family member or friend to parcel up books you already owned and send them in. This really saved money. Again, there could still be an extended wait – ranging from a week to a month or more – before the contents of the package had arrived at the prison, had been opened and checked by security (presumably including having drugs dogs give the volumes a good sniff) before they were sent up to the wing by Reception.

Updating a prisoner's prop card
Next, all hardcover books needed to be individually recorded on the ubiquitous ‘prop card’ (personal property record) by title and author. Presumably this was designed to prevent buying and selling on the wings. However – bizarrely – paperbacks were classed as ‘consumables’ and no record was required, regardless of the value!

Finally, once all the security checks and prop card records had been completed (and this could easily take days or weeks), the eagerly awaited books were ready for collection from the wing office. Even then, a written note was usually slid under your cell door informing you that books had arrived and were ready for collection.

Cumbersome as this system may sound, it did work, albeit slowly. I had the enormous pleasure of actually receiving books I’d purchased myself years earlier and now really wanted to read again from cover to cover or to have available for reference on the little table in my shared cell. 

There is something comforting in the feel and smell of having your own books around you, especially when you are confined in a tiny concrete box for up to 23 hours a day. I’d bought these items when I was still a free man and they became a sort of tangible reminder of my former life. In fact, I could often recall exactly when and where I’d purchased them: from Blackwell’s in Oxford or on the Charing Cross Road.

Happy memories of buying books
Several of my pad-mates also got the benefit of my mini-library which eventually extended to about 25 books – way over the arbitrary limit of 12 originally imposed by PSI 30/2013, a restrictive rule that also included any items borrowed from the prison library. It did not, however, include a Bible (or other sacred text) or dictionary, so the real in-cell limit was actually 14.

Just imagine serving a very long prison sentence and having to select just 12 books, up to six of which could be library loans, for your entire stretch. Which ones would you choose? 

Mercifully, this nasty little piece of vindictive twaddle was quietly dropped by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) even before Chris Grayling received his much deserved trouncing in the High Court. Maybe the lawyers had warned Team Grayling that this highly restrictive rule – which was impacting seriously on prisoners studying for Open University qualifications and other correspondence courses – just wasn’t going to be defensible on the grounds of common sense. 

So where do we go from here? My best guess is that there will be no return to families and friends being able to post in books directly from home. This would represent far too much of a climbdown for a Justice Secretary who has repeatedly claimed that his robust new rules were introduced on grounds of prison security – variously to keep drugs out or to prohibit ‘extremist’ literature from getting in.

Approved supplier to prisons
Instead, I suspect that from 1st February prisoners will have to submit a general app for each specific book they wish to receive. Once this has been approved in writing – probably by a custodial manager – they will be able to ask family members or friends to order the book for them via an approved supplier. In many prisons, perhaps all, this is likely to be It certainly was in at least three nicks I was in.

I won’t go into all the reasons that giving an effective monopoly to this particular vendor might be fraught with moral and ethical concerns. However, having the ‘choice’ of only one approved supplier will severely limit the range of books available to prisoners, particularly if specific titles are now out of print. Some works may also only be obtainable direct from specialist bookshops, such as foreign language books. Are they to be excluded from prisons because of new restrictions on where orders can be placed?

Stalinist? Us? Never!
Prisons may also insist that all books ordered from its approved retailer be brand new and come delivered directly to the establishment in sealed wraps for security reasons. While this system is certainly better than nothing, it could still impose wide-ranging restrictions on access to many books, especially specialist volumes needed for study, not to mention additional costs to be borne by prisoners’ families and friends.

As of today, the reality is that we really don’t know which way this issue is going to go. Perhaps down in the MoJ offices in Petty France no decisions have yet been taken. It seems characteristic of the current senior management within Team Grayling to make decisions on the hoof, without consulting governors or others who have professional experience of how prisons actually operate.

All sorts of new barriers could still be erected to thwart the spirit of the High Court judgement following a judicial review that was bitterly contested by Team Grayling at every stage. That’s why – at least for now – I’m only giving two cheers for the ending of the ban on posting in books to prisoners. 


  1. Given that in my experience most contraband enters prisons via the staff rather than from visitors or being slung over the wall, Grayling's stated reasons for banning books were always completely unbelievable.

    Basically if Grayling or NOMS really want to stop contraband and extremist literature getting into prisons they need to focus on searching all staff going into a prison every single day. At present it is apparently only those working in high security establishments that get searched at all and even then not on a regular basis which is ridiculous.

    I have to say that apart from Holloway, in all the prisons I was in library access was good and inter library loans were obtained quickly and easily. Stock of books was also good. The only problem you had with interlibrary loans was that unless you had someone on the outside to research new publications, titles etc for you, it was virtually impossible to know what you could order via an inter library loan because of the lack of internet access.

    I, like Nick Hardwick, find it incomprehensible that in the second decade of the 21st Century prisoners are still denied access to the internet. I don't count the Virtual Campus which was, in the female estate, virtually non existent and if it did exist was virtually inaccessible and had so little on it it was hardly worthwhile even logging on to although I understand in some male prisons it is a valuable resource. It is really easy to set up a system so that it is not possible to access prohibited sites so there really is no excuse for this stupid oversight. Given that resettlement is virtually non existent these days, giving prisoners access to the internet would allow them to sign on to council housing waiting lists or find other housing, get advice and help from charities like Shelter and Unlock, set up a benefits claim and pretty much do everything necessary for resettlement easily and cheaply.

    On another topic I note that once again Channel 4 didn't air the segment on prisons. It suggests that they have no intention of doing so.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I completely agree with your analysis of the ludicrous and contrived reasons advanced in a futile attempt to justify the book ban on security or even counter-terrorism grounds!

      I have commented previously in an earlier post on how prisoners are unconnected to the outside world by modern technology. It shouldn't be beyond the bounds of possibility for some form of internet access to be made available for education and resettlement purposes. However, I can't see any progress being made on this any time soon.

      I've been informed that the C4 News feature is now scheduled for broadcast on Monday evening at 7pm. Let's see, although I must admit that a week on from the actual interview, I'm not holding my breath!

  2. It is very rare that I find myself agreeing with the words Mr Grayling spouts to try to justify his 'reforms'. He states he didn't implicitly ban books being sent to prisoners. That's actually probably the most truthful statement I've heard from him. It wasn't just books - it was everything! No clean underwear, no books, no gifts from home or pictures from inmates kids.

    Quite rightly the pressure groups picked up on the ban on books being sent to inmates but ministerial meddling goes much further and has, thankfully, in part being found to be unlawful. This is our Lord Chancellor - who has no legal background - passing legislation that has been deemed unlawful in our High Court. It beggars belief.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I believe that the real reason Mr Grayling pushed through PSI 30/2013 was purely so he could go for a favourable headline in the Daily Mail, regardless of the actual impact inside prisons - including the loss of a substantial tranche of goodwill and cooperation that allows most prisons to run with a degree of consent. To throw that away, particularly at a time of serious cutbacks and staff shortages only reveals how little he and his sidekicks really know about the realities of life inside!

      'Catastrophe Chris' has now managed to come a cropper in seven - or is it now eight - cases of judicial review since last summer through which his absolute lack of any legal expertise and total ignorance of the law of the land has been painfully exposed for all to see. He has, to put it bluntly, undermined the rule of law in England and Wales and made a mockery of what was once one of the most respected legal systems in the world.

      As one magistrate recently wrote on his own blog the forthcoming election will hopefully see "the removal of this abomination of a justice secretary from the office he has forever tarnished". How very, very true.

    2. I seem to remember reading somewhere that Grayling has lost 70 to 80 legal challenges to his bonkers decisions since taking office. More than any other SSJ in recorded history. Cameron should immediately remove this idiot from post as he is clearly completely and totally unsuited for the job. Perhaps a change in career to one shovelling pig shit might be a good idea as he is clearly proficient in that regard

    3. Thanks for your observations. I believe that it is certainly the case that since the summer the Lord High Chancellor and SSJ has lost seven or eight separate judicial reviews where it has been found on each occasion that he had acted either irrationally, or unlawfully, or sometimes both.

      As the magistrate I quoted above has concluded, Mr Grayling has caused immense - perhaps irreparable - damage to the whole criminal justice system. He has made a pitiful laughing stock of an ancient and great office of state. That, in itself, could be regarded as conduct verging on the criminal.

      Perhaps part of the problem is that he has absolutely no legal background. He was a BBC executive and then a PR wonk prior to becoming an MP. He therefore seems to find it hard to understand that ministers of the Crown cannot simply behave as they please or act on every ideological whim and fancy - even if what they have tried to do will please the Daily Mail's reactionary readership!

  3. it was pretty cool today. you know how i work in social care and a care home for the elderly was the last place i expected to meet prisoners! but there they were, two lads form day release doing volunteer work - one in the kitchen, the other cleaning.

    the reason i didn't anticipate this, is that i always think of social care as so restrictive in terms of criminal record and i thought how wonderful that is, that the care home is allowing. i suppose it would be on the ground that they haven't got any abusive or sexual type convictions.

    but yeah, my inner cynic noted that the in terms of short staffing, the home was probably making a plus having them both there, but they seemed happy enough chatting away with us (i guess it must be nice to be so domestic with all these women about (most of the staff were women today)).

    apparently it's a sort of scheme. nobody really talked about it much (i tried to chat with the manager) i reckon perhaps not to potentially upset the residents??!!

    anyway, just thought i'd share.


    1. Thank you for your contribution, Martina. It is always good to have some good news about prisoners on day release making a positive contribution to the local community, especially in this era of negative media coverage of open prisons. When I was at my Cat-D jail, I knew a number of fellow cons who did similar voluntary work at old peoples' homes, hospitals, community centres, local churches, giving help for disabled kids... the list was endless. I've also been in closed prisons where prisoners who only earned £8 or £9 a week donated a quid or two to support local appeals to raise money to help sick or disabled children. Yet little or none of this kindness and genuine community spirit is ever really reported in the media.

      So thank you for sharing your own experiences with readers. It is much appreciated.

  4. You say "Access to prison libraries is also often highly restricted, in part owing to current staff shortages".

    That's a pity because I have been considering sending paperbacks I have read to my local prison's library. I have no interest in keeping them to clutter my life, and I'd get peanuts if I tried to sell them.


    1. Send them anyway as even with the current limited access someone will be glad to receive them

    2. Thanks for both comments above. Not all prison libraries are so restrictive when it comes to access. Libraries in Cat-Ds (open prisons) are often open and accessible to all prisoners during the day and even into the evenings, so if your local prison is an open one, then you'd be making a valuable donation.

      It's also definitely worth asking your local library whether the county library service is responsible for the local prison libraries in your area. If so, then you might be able to just drop off all your surplus books there and they will do the rest.

  5. "However, having the ‘choice’ of only one approved supplier will severely limit the range of books available to prisoners, particularly if specific titles are now out of print"

    Perhaps if Amazon are chosen as a preferred supplier, they could be lobbied successfully to provide a small department that manages sales sent directly to prisons. Part of their remit might be to supply non-listed books for study purposes, and I suspect they wouldn't be averse to having representatives of the Prison Service over-see the process, rather than leave it to the individual prisons consider each parcel.

    This sort of centralisation could make a lot of peoples lives easier, and won't happen if nobody (who knows the right people) suggests it.

    1. Thanks for your suggestions. Just this week I discussed the issue with a serving prison governor and he also has reservations about Amazon, although we didn't go into all the background details. In most cases decisions about approved suppliers to HMPS seem to be made centrally, although in the past there did appear to be limited local discretion (for example over which local newsagent supplied papers and magazines).

      There have always been problems with severely limited choices, both for serving prisoners and their families. For example, pretty much anything that is not a book, CD or DVD or clothing has to come from the Argos catalogue. This includes electrical items (other than the old Playstation 2s as these are no longer sold on the high street and are now only obtainable from an HMPS approved supplier). Effectively, this means that if it's not in the Argos catalogue, then it can't be purchased. Great for Argos' shareholders, but not so great for anyone using the internal ordering system within prisons!

  6. An interesting article in the Independent today: ‘Incompetent’ Grayling condemned by ex-Tory MP as ‘off his trolley’

    Not that this is any surprise but its good to know that others in the establishment are calling it as well

    1. Thanks for your comments and the link above. I think that there can be absolutely no doubt that Mr Grayling is the most incompetent Lord Chancellor in English (and British) history. As I've mentioned in one of my previous replies to readers' comments, his track record is shocking and has no doubt cost the public purse very dearly indeed. For a man who has pledged to reduce costs across the criminal justice system he has certainly flushed a great deal of taxpayers' cash down the pan by defending indefensible, unlawful and irrational policy decisions. At least some of his more discerning colleagues appear to have seen the way the wind is blowing! Let's see how many more opt to chuck him to his fate in order to keep the wolves from their own sleigh...

  7. Up until the IEP changes I sent books in regularly to my sister in nick. She wouldn't get any that took her over the limit of 12 but in theory if she handed one she'd read back out at a visit - or gave it to the library - she could have another sent in. In reality it was much more arbitrary than that and I know for long periods she had more. I wonder if this is a male/female estate differrence?

    1. Thanks for your contribution. Some prisons seem to have been reluctant to apply to new IEP rules on books, particularly with prisoners who had been inside a while and had collected more than the maximum 12 (excluding religious texts or a dictionary). I certainly had far more books in my possession that that and no-one ever mentioned the fact. When I was released, I gave most of the books to the prison library.

      Certainly there are difference in the way male and female cons are treated. For example, women never have to wear prison uniform, even on Basic regime or Entry level. I doubt that this extends to books, mainly because the prisoner who brought the judicial review against the MoJ and won in December was female and she complained about the restrictions.

  8. And other link trashing Grayling: The guy just can't get a break can he?

    1. Thanks for the link. Now he's being battered in the media over the MoJ's bid for the Saudi prison contract. Perhaps all of the nasty, inhumane policies he has been imposing here have endeared him to the Saudi tyrants.

      It seems that the Ministry of (In)Justice under Mr Grayling might prove to be an ideal partner in crime for a regime that is notorious for its human rights abuses. What are beheadings, floggings, stonings, jailing of dissidents and bloggers, not to mention institutionalised mistreatment of women and members of minorities, between ideological friends - especially when the price is right!

      Having wrecked our criminal justice system, Mr Grayling could now become equally infamous as a "flogger hugger". He must feel very proud of himself.

  9. An interesting quote from the On Probation Blog: "They will never make OASys fit for purpose. It's labelling and data gathering aspects have always been greater than its contribution to risk prediction. Its pseudo science attracted many gullible followers and it gained some undeserved validity, but in time it will be shown to have been as useful as phrenology. A waste of time and money." Sums up the whole OASys experience for anyone who has undergone one so beautifully.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I've always taken the view that OASys was a complete and utter waste of everyone's time and effort. I've known of cases where two prisoners' (co-defendants) paperwork has got mixed up by staff with devastating results, as the wrong offences got listed in the system, causing endless problems as these couldn't be deleted.

      The Inspectorate has also condemned the OASys system as far too complicated and unfit for purpose. Many OMU staff don't even know how to do it properly, especially when there are staff shortages across the prison estate!