Monday, 13 July 2015

Prisoners and Books: Back to the Future?

During the past few months of recuperation I’ve had plenty of time to think about prison issues. In some ways being seriously ill is not entirely dissimilar to being in jail. There are many things that you’d like to do and places you’d like to visit, but you can’t. At best you just have to wait.

Mr Gove: undoing the damage?
For my return to blogging – although on a less regular basis than before, at least for now – I thought I’d comment on the welcome decision by Michael Gove, the new Secretary of State for Justice, to lift the ludicrous restrictions placed on prisoners’ access to books by his benighted (and utterly unlamented) predecessor ‘Calamity’ Chris Grayling. Instead of limiting each prisoner to a maximum of 12 books, there has been a return to the old tried and tested regulation that merely set overall volumetric limits on the total amount of personal property a prisoner can hold ‘in possession’ at any one time. In theory this is limited to what can fit into two standard prison property boxes (excluding a guitar or medical equipment), although some establishments seem to be more flexible than others. 

When I was inside I certainly had far more books than the arbitrary limit of 12 (plus a religious book and a dictionary) imposed by Mr Grayling from 1 November 2013. I had taken a pile of paperbacks with me in my holdall when I was sent down and I added quite a few extra that were then sent in from home by my family at my request. All this was before Mr Grayling’s campaign to make serving a prison sentence even more difficult and pointless than it already is.

Not your average prison cell...
Fortunately, I’d moved to a Cat-D (open) prison months before the new rules began to be imposed. Had I still been in closed conditions, the likelihood is that I’d either have had a number of my own books confiscated or else ended up getting ‘nicked’ (put on a disciplinary charge) and punished. If I’d reached my limit of 12, then presumably I would have been banned permanently from borrowing any books from the prison library. 

Luckily for me, this particular Cat-D prison was so short of staff that they couldn’t even control the flow of drugs (legal and illegal) or other contraband into the establishment, therefore counting the books on the shelf in my room  - no cells in open nicks – really wasn’t going to happen. To be honest, I suspect that most of the uniformed staff hadn’t even read the new regulations in any detail and those who had couldn’t have cared less about how many books were around. They had much bigger fish to fry.

Of course, it is true that there was a clause in the rules that allowed individual prisoners to make a specific application to the governor for permission to have more than 12 books in possession (and remember that total included any volumes borrowed from the prison library). However, the bureaucracy involved could be daunting and often extremely slow. Over-stretched prison staff generally don’t have time to deal with written applications of this sort at the best of times.

What these regulations meant in practice was that inmates who were trying to complete distance learning courses, especially Open University qualifications, had extra hurdles to jump. Imagine trying to revise for exams when access to the core textbooks was either severely limited or else denied. At least this sort of mean pettifogging nonsense should soon be coming to an end.

The voice of reason
It is also equally welcome that the ban on family and friends posting in books from home is also set to end. Since the High Court ruled back in December that it was unlawful to prohibit prisoners from receiving books, in part because of the severe limitations of prison libraries and widespread issues of access due to staff shortages, Mr Grayling’s blanket ban had been relaxed, although not before a considerable whack of taxpayers’ cash had been wasted on legal fees whilst fighting the case. 

Since February the purchase of titles by families and friends from four official suppliers – Blackwells, Foyles, Waterstones and WH Smith – for direct delivery to prisoners has been permitted, although some prisons have been very slow to implement the new regulations and a few seem not to have bothered trying. I have previously blogged on this issue in more detail here.

Soon families, friends and external organisations (such as charities and distance learning providers) will once again be permitted to send in books direct, subject to the usual security checks such as X-rays, sniffer dogs and inspection by the censor’s office. All very sensible, really. 

Go find the book!
The new rules will come into effect from 1 September. Presumably this delay is to allow for the drafting and circulation of an amendment to Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013 on Incentives and Earned Privileges in order to establish a framework for the incoming arrangements. As far as books are concerned at least, this fatally flawed PSI – ‘Calamity’ Chris’ dysfunctional brainchild – will be consigned to the dustbin of history; an inconvenient footnote in what has proved to be a disastrous and unnecessary policy – and more importantly – one that helped mobilise a popular campaign about prisoners’ access to books.

In one respect at least, Mr Grayling has done us all an unintended favour. By introducing such severe restrictions on prisoners and their access to books he managed to spark off a widespread national (and international) debate on education and literacy within the prisons in his charge. Far more people are now aware of the day-to-day restrictions prisoners face, many of which have little or nothing to do with either security or rehabilitation.

Mr Gove is clearly a skilful politician. He has sensed the way the wind of public opinion is blowing on this issue and has unceremoniously ditched a key element of his predecessor’s deeply toxic legacy. Overnight, he has been able to present himself as an enlightened reformer who is attempting to undo some of the damage done to the Prison Service since 2012.

Silk purse... or sow's ear of a politician?
What is also worth noting is that he has achieved this in a way that clearly shows all the huffing and puffing about books sent through the post presenting a dire threat to security (and even more so the spread of ‘subversive’ ideas) from the spokeswonks down at the Ministry of Justice during the Grayling era was no more than dishonest propaganda designed after the fact to defend an indefensible, ideologically-motivated and downright nasty policy (see my blog post on this here). But then we all knew that anyway, of course.

Whether this will really mark the beginning of a new dawn in UK penal policy remains to be seen. Can Mr Gove really reform our failing and dysfunctional prison system and refocus away from mere retribution towards rehabilitation? We shall see. 


  1. Hopefully Gove, although not a lawyer will be a much better SSJ than Grayling. Gove has also decided to can the stupid idea of the mammoth secure college for young adult offenders despite contracts being signed. Let's hope more senseible ideas come out of the MoJ in furutre weeks and months. Grayling on the other hand seems to be making a ham fist of his new role. Apparently got lambasted by the opposition parties for trying to sneak new legislation through before the summer recess without proper debate. Some people are apparently incapable of learning from their mistakes. Makes me wonder how Grayling continues to be reelected as he is clearly an idiot and incapable of doing any job. One can only conclude that none of his constituents have ever actually met the man.

    1. Thanks for your comments. Although the initial signs might be positive, all Mr Gove has really done so far is to reverse some of Mr Grayling's worse policies regarding access to books. In effect, he's just putting the clock back to pre-November 2013. Welcome as these minor concessions might be, there still a hell of a long way to go, as the latest HM Inspectorate report highlights.

      As for Mr Grayling's new role as Leader of the House, I feel that it would be very wrong of me to comment on his utterly lamentable performance...

  2. Whilst I applaud the end of this stupid ban as an officer i have to say that out of 800 prisoners around 30 a week go to the library.

    Not all, but the vast majority of prisoners don't seem to care about reading and very few appear to have been raised to understand the joy the written word can bring.

    Also, sadly many inside seem to have the reading & writing skills of young children; very sad.

    1. Thanks for your contribution. As you know, I positively welcome comments from members of staff.

      In some respects I'm surprised by the low uptake you've experienced in your establishment. I well recall joining very long queues in two Cat-B prisons for the 20 minute weekly library visit - perhaps 40 or 50 on a four-tier wing housing 140 cons, so maybe around one in three.

      On the other hand, I did notice that numbers started to drop when the more restricted regimes were introduced in 2012 and 2013. In part this was due to the need to make a choice between library, exercise or gym which were all scheduled for the same slot. Moreover, cancellation of library visits became so regular (maybe half cancelled with no notice - usually due to staff shortages or security alarms on other wings) that some inmates just gave up queuing. It got difficult to maintain any enthusiasm for an activity that might not take place.

      However, I also take your point about the lack of interest in reading among a large section of the prison population. I used to coordinate the Toe by Toe adult literary scheme in two prisons and experienced for myself the struggle to get fellow cons motivated.

      Since around 60 percent of prisoners do experience serious problems with literacy (ranging from total illiteracy to reading and writing ages of 10 years or under) I can understand why library visits and access to books isn't relevant to many inmates. On the other hand, for those who do enjoy reading or who are trying to improve their education, the Grayling-era restrictions were particularly counter-productive.

  3. I like your blog list. I will be checking them out.