Thursday, 5 February 2015

Books and Pants: the Battle Continues

I was planning to write only a brief post today owing to another pressing writing deadline, but as usual the subject took over. As I predicted pretty accurately in my previous post – Two Cheers for the End of the Book Ban! – the Ministry of (In)Justice (MOJ) has licked its wounds from the good judicial kicking it received in the High Court from Mr Justice Collins back in early December and has responded by rolling out a further revision of the controversial Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme.

Annex I – the fourth revision of Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013 since it came into effect on 1 September 2013 – lifts the ban on books being purchased for prisoners by family and friends. However, it also places restrictions on how these books can be supplied. You can find the latest version here via the MoJ website.

Books can now be ordered for prisoners
Under the previous arrangements, prisoners had been permitted to place orders themselves through the prison administration for books (and DVDs, CDs and games) as long as they were only using funds that were available from their internal ‘spends’ accounts – a combination of private cash allowances which depend on the IEP level and prison wages. In almost all jails the approved supplier was

The latest amendment to PSI 30/2013 has identified four newly-approved suppliers for book orders:

• Blackwell’s
• Foyles
• Waterstones
• WH Smith

Those wishing to send books to prisoners are now permitted to place orders with any of these suppliers for direct delivery to the prison. As I pointed out in my recent blog post on this subject, this is very similar to the system that existed in some prisons prior to 1 September 2013, although the range of approved suppliers is now much wider.

Because deliveries are made straight from the firm to the prison post room, this should eliminate (or at least reduce significantly) the risk that contraband might be concealed in a parcel. Of course, online-only ordering may still present problems for the 14 percent of people in the UK who don’t have access to the internet, including some older people who might want to send books to their relatives who are inside. Will any of the four approved suppliers allow people to place orders in person at their shops? Foyles has already indicated that it will only accept online orders for delivery to prisoners.

Amazon: is it 'done' as a prison supplier?
Interestingly, Amazon appears to have been dropped from the official list. The reason for this decision hasn’t been made public yet. I have no idea whether this could be linked to the ongoing probe into Amazon’s tax arrangements by the European Commission. It’s worth noting that Amazon robustly rejects any suggestion that it isn’t following the letter of the law.

Whether prisoners themselves can still place internal orders via the prison with Amazon for books, CDs, DVDs and computer games is also unclear although I am trying to find out from friends still inside. It would be bizarre if cons can still use Amazon, but their friends and families not. Perhaps this inconsistency will become institutionalised as a consequence. After all, the evidence from some of the four new approved suppliers is that the MOJ only invited them to participate in the scheme a few days before the revision to PSI 30/2013 was issued. Hardly evidence of careful or thorough planning.

One of the four approved suppliers
While this is typical of the chaos that appears to have become endemic inside ‘Calamity’ Chris’ ministry, I suspect this will also mean that no guidance has been issued to governors regarding Amazon’s existing status as an approved supplier to prisoners placing their own orders.

What is very welcome in the latest IEP revision is the decision to return a degree of local discretion to prison governors. “Books are only allowed to be sent or handed in directly by families and friends where there are exceptional circumstances that have been agreed by the Governor”.

At least this concession may mean that where particular volumes or textbooks can’t be sourced from any of the approved suppliers there is still the option to submit a governor’s application to get special permission. To be honest this is a better arrangement than I had expected.

As always with this sort of situation there will no doubt be some prison administrations that will make life as difficult as possible for prisoners and their families. I’m still willing to bet that certain establishments will require a reception app (application) that will need to have been approved in advance of an order being placed. Again, this was certainly the practice in one Cat-B local during my time there.
Audio books for those who need them

It is also good to note that those prisoners who have certain disabilities will also be permitted to receive audio books on CDs or cassette tapes. Presumably the MoJ realised that unless it made specific provision for prisoners in these situations there could be a further challenges on the grounds of unlawful discrimination under the Equalities Act. As it is, common sense appears to have prevailed for once.

Funnily enough, the IEP revision also nails the whopper – probably inadvertently – that the reason for the ban on posting books into prisoners was to prevent “extremist” or other inappropriate literature getting into our prisons. As Annex I makes clear:

Restrictions on the books which prisoners are allowed to have access to remains unchanged. The Public Protection Manual sets out the books that no prisoner can have access to and Governors can extend this list if the nature of the particular prison’s population requires it.  In addition, Governors can decide whether an individual prisoner should have a particular title, taking into account the prisoner’s offending behaviour.  

"It was only a tiny, little whopper!"
So there you have it! All the defensive bluster and mock indignation issuing from the MOJ about keeping “extremist” material out at the time the ban on sending books in to prisoners was being challenged is exposed as complete poppycock – by the MOJ itself. This clearly shows that the power to block such literature was already in place, a point I raised in a previous post on the subject: Time for One More Whopper, Chris?

However, the problem of pants (and other underwear) remains outstanding. A recent announcement by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) appears to have lifted specific restrictions on the number of items of underwear each prisoner is permitted to have in possession in their cell. This move followed pressure from within women’s prisons over the problems that many female prisoners were experiencing with hygiene issues, particularly during menstruation, owing to these rules.

Initially there did seem to be some confusion as to whether this IEP scheme revision would apply to men’s prisons in England and Wales. However, I’ve noted that the latest version of PSI 30/2013 does seem to remove specific limits by number of garments and merely refers to the general level of volumetric control that applies to most personal possessions held by prisoners. There is still a limit of 10 pairs in respect of socks, but when it comes to underpants (knickers, ‘undercrackers’ or ‘shreddies’) your two volumetric boxes are now the only limit.

Prison boxer shorts - rarely this clean
The next battle should be to eliminate the unhygienic and humiliating practice of requiring male prisoners to wear communal pants and socks that have often been worn – and sometimes stained – by many others before them. This appears to have been eliminated in women’s prisons, so it’s high time that arrangements were made to ensure that male prisoners are treated with equal decency.

There are various ways in which this could be done. A simple and effective way would be to add cheap new underpants and socks to the weekly canteen sheet so prisoners could buy their own as required. A few prisons do offer socks already so it shouldn’t be too complex to add pants. Another option would be to do a deal with a major high street supplier – such as Sports Direct or Primark – that could supply cheap underwear via the prison at a price most cons could afford.

Some prisons insist on only allowing prisoners to place internal orders for clothing with more expensive catalogue companies – such as Very – that effectively have a monopoly within those institutions. While this may be fine for well-heeled inmates who have a regular supply of money coming in from home and like pricey designer labels, it would take a con on an average prison weekly wage of £8 a full week’s income to earn sufficient credit to purchase three pairs of socks or two weeks’ entire earnings to buy a single pair of the cheapest underpants on offer from the Very catalogue.

M&M catalogue: cheaper
In comparison, the cheapest equivalents from the M&M catalogue – which is the approved supplier in some prisons – are around half the prices being charged by Very. Not all establishments have approved orders from this catalogue for reasons that aren’t at all clear. It certainly can’t be on security grounds as M&M does send direct to some specific nicks.

I’ve yet to find any prison that has approved orders for clothing from Sports Direct, even though this supplier currently offers a single pair of socks from 49p and underpants from £2.50. Prices like these would be much more affordable for the majority of prisoners who are on a typical fixed prison income.

Of course, offering prisoners the opportunity to buy their own cheap underwear and socks makes perfect sense. Not only it is much more hygienic and psychologically healthier, but it would also save the taxpayer money as fewer pairs of prison-issue would be required. Sadly, such common sense seems to be in short supply in the MOJ at the moment where the ideological focus seems to be all about degradation and humiliation of male prisoners, rather than on human decency and rehabilitation.


  1. In all the female jails I have been in, the prison provided bras, knickers and socks from stores which were all brand new. I've not heard of a single female jail where this was not the case. It would therefore be possible for an enterprising male prisoner to file a discrimination suit against the MoJ for failing to provide the equivalent in male establishments after all the Equalities Act makes it illegal for a public body to discriminate against someone by reason of their sex.

    I have to say the underwear provided by the prison was cheap and fell apart pretty quickly although the socks were relatively robust apart from the elastic that held them up. But at least it was all new and unworn by others. We could also purchase underwear from Gladrags which exists in most closed female prisons I'm aware of (or the local equivalent) which was generally sourced from Primark and thus also fell apart relatively quickly especially if you stuck it in a prison wash. AT ESP you could go out and buy your own undies from Primark on your ROTLs. Not sure if that changed after the IEP scheme was updated or not as ESP didn't have a stores per se that you could get prison kit from.

    M & M catalogues were also available in every female nick I've been in. Never understood the selection of Very as most of the clothing Very sells really isn't the sort of thing you'd want to wear in prison or would be allowed to for that matter. Most of the women's skirts are too short, party dresses are not really something you'd buy either. Not to mention its really expensive for what it is.

    1. Thanks for your very enlightening contribution. I was pretty fortunate in that I was a new reception nearly two years before the revised IEP scheme came into effect. It did cause me a few problems - mainly disposing of black clothing, but by then I was at a Cat-D so I just took it all home on ROTL.

      The problem of grubby, old and stained prison kit was common to all six jails I had experience of. In the open prison it was assumed you wouldn't need any prison issue beyond bedding and work clothes, so they never had anything vaguely decent or clean in stock. When the new rules were introduced it was a chaos as prisoners were arriving from closed prisons in the kit they stood up in and there were no replacements available. One lad had to wear the same stinking trackies and t-shirt he arrived in for two weeks before he received some clean ones.

      The revised IEP policies have hit open prisons very hard. By the time I was released, you were no longer permitted to buy any clothing - or anything else for that matter - while on ROTL. Of course, some people did buy clean underwear and come back in wearing three pairs of socks or pants!

      During the winter, this meant that lots of prisoners had no access to warm winter coats or other clothing. Really terrible - particularly for the older men - and totally unnecessary, especially at a resettlement prison.

      Because of the changes to the IEP system, the M&M catalogues available didn't have a single winter coat that met the new rules. All were either black, or padded or had a hood. In the end, the governor had to introduce a local 'transitional' period where we were permitted to order coats from other suppliers or get ones we had at home sent in. Otherwise half of us would have got hypothermia during that winter. A total fiasco caused by Chris Grayling for no good reason.

    2. When the IEP changes came in I was at Holloway after Downview closed. There was a hue and cry that we were no longer permitted white shirts or black trousers or anything which could approximate an officer's uniform because apparently we would simply dress up as an officer in this clothing and slip out the back door. Bloody silly decision considering the number of officers and education and other staff wandering round in normal clothing we could potentially impersonate. Visitors passes had no names or photos on them and visitors were not photographed. It would therefore have been incredibly easy to have impersonated someone wearing normal street clothing and get out that way if you were so minded. A lot easier than faking a uniform would be. I'd also note that Holloway had no incidents at all where any prisoner had even attempted to impersonate an officer for any purpose let alone escape so it was yet another pointless decision by HMPS that had absolutely no rationale behind it..

      Mind you Bronzefield whern I was there used to produce similarly silly diktats at regular intervals. We all used to sit there when one of these security memos was sent out going "you know what we would NEVER have thought about doing that but now, you've mentioned it . . . ". Maybe you can posit that the security departments in women's closed local prisons have nothing better to do with their time than think up daft things the prisoners might potentially do and then legislate against these silly fantasies.

  2. Off topic but another scandal by the British government in relation to an innocent man being denied justice down to lack of co-operation by the Home Office:

    1. Thanks for the link. British justice not covering itself with glory yet again!

  3. Also off topic but amusing a you tube vid about talking to the police if arrested:

  4. I guess Sports Direct would be a good clothes supplier for Prisons.

    I read an article about Martina Cole visiting a Prison to promote the Six Book Challenge scheme recently. I had never read any of her books until now and the reason is perfectly clear - full of swear words and convicts! I guess she is a good starting point if you enjoy reading about crime and foul language.

  5. Dear Alex,

    Thank you for your amazing blog! I am doing a PhD related to prison and information you provide is very interesting and useful. It also shows the comparison between the information available from the Government and the reality.
    I am interested in volumetric control boxes and I have read in multiple documents about their use and measurements. But what do these volumetric control boxes look like? I have been trying to find photos and images, but I can't seem to find any depiction of them.
    Would you be able to help me in the right direction or do you happen to have a photo of them?
    Kind regards,

  6. I hope this is seen and someone can respond! I have a loved one going to prison and I wrote a list of things he should pack to take with him based on what I have read online but now I've read that prisoners aren't even allowed their own pants and socks?

    Is there anything he can take in? (He will be cat-B.) I was hoping he could at least take his own underwear, some paper/pens/envelopes/stamps and maybe a couple of books :/

    Also he is very tall and large roughly XXXL or XXXXL... with all these shortages will they even be able to get him clothes that fit?!

    Thanks in advance