The UK’s Justice Minister Chris Grayling is under fire for a “despicable” new policy that bans prisoners from having free access to books.
In a move that has earned strong condemnation from a diverse list of groups, the UK Ministry of Justice is enforcing plans to restrict items that prisoners will be allowed to receive from outside the prison. These restrictions would mean that prisoners would not be able to have things like special interest magazines, homemade birthday cards, items like socks or underwear and, most controversially of all, books. Prisoners would instead be able to gain access to these items under the new Earned Privileges scheme for their good behavior and complying with rehabilitation efforts.
It is important to note that the policy would not ban all books (or any of these items) entirely, as some have misstated. Prisoners would be allowed a few books from the prison library (up to 12 but usually less) but as cutbacks and prison reforms have restricted access to those libraries, and prisoners are now made to spend increasing amounts of time restricted to their cells, there is the fear that this restriction will dramatically undercut prisoner welfare in a way that is counterproductive to rehabilitation.
Frances Crook, the director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, first wrote about the changes for politics.co.uk. Crook notes that the changes, which were actually brought into force in November of 2013 and represent a downgrading of prisoner rewards, mean that while prisoners might be able to earn the right to access some of the restricted items, books aren’t one of those and so they will only be able to access new material via ordering them through the prison service. Moreover, critics say, it would seem to be a direct challenge to helping educate prisoners, a wrong-headed move when part of the drive to rehabilitate many prisoners, especially among younger offenders, centers on improving literacy and empathy through things like reading.
Author Philip Pullman has hit out directly at Chris Grayling in a verbal flaying given to the Guardian: “Words nearly fail me on this. It comes from the mind of a man with the outlook of the sort of school bully who is indulged and favored by the teachers, who can see perfectly well how noxious his behavior 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.”
However the government has hit back, saying that criticisms of the policy are ill founded.
Prisons minister Jeremy Wright is quoted as saying, “The notion that we are banning books in prisons is complete nonsense. All prisoners can have up to 12 books in their cells at any one time, and all prisoners have access to the prison library. Under the incentives and earned privileges scheme, if prisoners engage with their rehabilitation and comply with the regime, they can have greater access to funds to buy items, including books.”
The government maintains that the system is fair and will encourage those who like books to adhere to their rehabilitation programs.
Wrote Greyling in a piece for politics.co.uk: “Wilfully stoking up misconceptions about what were are doing in prisons, and what we are trying to achieve with those changes – fewer criminals going round and round the system, trailing fewer victims in their wake – doesn’t help anyone, least of all those whose offending behavior it is that we are trying to stop.”
This strong defense hasn’t stopped other Conservative ministers apparently criticizing the policy, with unnamed sources saying that Greyling is rapidly losing support for the reform measures.
The rules are part of a raft of changes the government has engaged in to supposedly “toughen up” on prisoners. The new changes also mandate that prisoners must wear what have been dubbed “newbie” uniforms the first two weeks of their sentence, have to earn the right to graduate from the basic level in order to use things like gym facilities, and now have their television time severely restricted unless they can pay using their earned rewards. Again, as prisoners must now spend more time in their cells than before thanks to other changes the government has made, campaign groups have voiced concerns that this is cooking up a recipe for less prisoner engagement and possibly more prison violence.
While some have labeled the incentive scheme a sadistic attempt to further punish prisoners, and Greyling does seem to have an appetite for controversial restrictions as the unsuccessful move to strip prisoners of their voting rights has shown, the scheme in itself might not have been as objectionable had it not sought to separate prisoners from something we hold dear: the ability to access knowledge through literature.
While few have ever attempted to write it into statute, reading is not treated as a privilege in our society but as a basic right. Dehumanizing people while they are in prison, which restricting their access to the enriching and empathy-increasing activity of reading seems to do, certainly appears counterproductive if Minister Greyling has any interest in stopping prisoners re-offending once they are back in society.
The message the government should take from this entire affair, then, seems to be a simple one. The people of the UK are being quite clear: do not mess with our books.
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