Since Monday, vehement opposition has been growing in the media to the Ministry of Justice’s latest plans regarding prisons. New rules have introduced an Incentive and Earnings Scheme in which inmates are rewarded or punished as a result of their behaviour.
The scheme includes a blanket ban on prisoners receiving any parcels, including books, stationery and magazines, unless under exceptional circumstances. Instead, prisoners must pay for such items out of their prison wages.
Although these rules have been in place since last November, the recent controversy has grown in light of an article on Sunday by Francis Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, which stated that banning books was in some ways "the most despicable and nastiest element" of the new rules. Her comments have been picked up by several prominent authors who have expressed their dissatisfaction with the government and have demanded that the coalition rethink their policy. On Tuesday an online petition was set up calling on the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, to “urgently review and amend your new rules”, which had over 15,000 signatures by the end of the day.
Chris Grayling has responded to the outrage stating that prisoners' access to reading material is not being curtailed. He explained that prisoners have access to the prison library and will able to purchase books internally.
However, Chris Grayling is failing to acknowledge the practical impact of the policy. Although there are libraries, most prisoners only get to them once every few weeks and are only allowed to withdraw a limited number of books. In addition, prisoner’s wages are so insignificant that a book would cost almost an entire week’s wages. The policy is also predicated upon there being enough jobs to cater for all of the prisoners, which in reality is rarely the case.
The most troubling aspect of all is the notion that the government believe that curtailing prisoners’ access to books and education will have any positive effect on the rehabilitation of inmates, which is what they claim to be promoting.
It is common for prisoners to spend up to 20 hours a day in their cells, particularly on weekends. There simply should be no impediment to something as fundamental as access to books, in light of the obvious educational and mental health benefits.
This ban is counter productive and counter intuitive – books promote literacy and connect prisoners to the outside world, thereby increasing rehabilitation and the potential for successful reintegration into society upon release. Our society needs to question how far they are willing to go to punish people who are already deprived of their liberty – people who will one day be released from prison and will need to live and work once more.
The latest rules should also be viewed in light of the withdrawal last year of all legally aided legal representation for prisoners at hearings concerning internal prison matters, such as categorisation and complaints about conditions and treatments inside prisons.
It difficult to imagine how Grayling’s new measures will have any positive impact on the rehabilitation of prisoners and reducing offending rates, and will do anything other than further alienate an already severely marginalised sector of our society.
Sadly, and frustratingly, it is unlikely that the Ministry of Justice will reverse the current policies as to do so would be to admit that the thinking behind their policies is flawed.