Anger is growing over Conservative Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s decision to prevent prisoners from receiving books sent to prisons by family and friends. Under rules introduced by the Ministry of Justice last November, inmates are now forbidden to receive any kind of small parcel from outside prison walls other than in exceptional circumstances, such as the shipment of medication. Prisoners are still allowed to buy books with their weekly wages and check books out of the prison library, although given that the cost of even a paperback book would require most of that weekly wage, and the continuing strain put on libraries by local authority budgets, that may reasonably be seen as small comfort.
Though the legislation was introduced late last year, it is only over the past couple of days that protests against it have begun to increase in volume and ire, following a comment piece arguing against the ruling posted on Politics.co.uk by Frances Crook, chief executive of penal reform charity The Howard League for Penal Reform. Crook calls it ‘part of an increasingly irrational punishment regime orchestrated by Chris Grayling that grabs headlines but restricts education or rehabilitation.’ Though the law is claimed to be part of a system of incentive-driven rewards for good behaviour, Crook makes the point that ‘the ban on receiving books is a blanket decision, so no matter how compliant and well behaved you are, no prisoner will be allowed to receive books from the outside.’ Crook finishes with the damning verdict that ‘punishing reading is as nasty as it is bizarre.’
Since the publication of Crook’s piece, a Change.org petition asking for the legislation’s amendment has received over 8,000 signatures, including numerous prominent authors, who have also publicly condemned the ruling. Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, tells The Independent that the policy is ‘counterproductive’, saying: ‘It’s a gratuitous and mean-spirited punishment which fails to acknowledge the vital part books play in educating and rehabilitating prisoners’. Susan Black, author of The Woman in Black, argues along similar lines: ‘I am baffled as to Grayling’s reasoning. You judge a society by how it treats its prisoners. Banning books is the first thing dictators in totalitarian states do.’
Philip Pullman, meanwhile, having tweeted that the ruling was ‘one of the most disgusting, mean, vindictive acts of a barbaric government’, tells The Guardian: ‘It comes from the mind of a man with the outlook of the sort of school bully who is indulged and favoured by the teachers, who can see perfectly well how noxious his behaviour is, but allow it to continue on the grounds that at least he’s keeping order. Any government worth having would countermand this loathsome and revolting decision at once, sack the man responsible, and withdraw the whip from him.’
Grayling has responded to the criticism, also for Politics.co.uk, but so far shows little sign of being turned.
He was chief hack and music editor of webzine Brazen from 2006 to 2010, and hosted Left of the Dial on Subcity Radio from 2008 to 2011.
He can be heard semi-regularly on the podcast of Scottish cultural blog Scots Whay Hae ('20th best website in Scotland!' - The List), and in 2011 founded Seen Your Video, a film and music podcast and blog based in Glasgow. He has a Masters degree in Scottish Literature from the University of Glasgow that will never have any practical application. You are on a hiding to nothing if you follow him on Twitter expecting any kind of hot publishing scoop.