The Government's blanket ban on books being sent to prisoners is a “mistake” and the policy should be changed, the Chief Inspector of Prisons has said.
In an interview with The Independent, Nick Hardwick said preventing harmless items such as books from entering the country's jails was unnecessary “micro-management” by politicians. Decisions on what prisoners can receive from outside should be left to the discretion of individual prison governors, he added.
His comments will come as a blow to the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, who has so far dismissed growing objections to the policy, saying he is determined to bring “right wing solutions to bear on social problems where the Left has palpably failed”.
Mr Hardwick said that while the basic intention of the Government's policy was “sound”, aspects of the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme - which places strict limitations on what prisoners can receive in the post and keep in their cells - were “not sensible” and “haven't worked out in the way ministers intended”.
“The problem in this case… is trying to micro-manage this from the centre, with the centre describing very detailed lists of what prisoners can and can't have,” he said.
“I think that's a mistake. I think that once the policy intention is clear, how that's implemented should be left much more to the discretion and the common sense of governors, so that they can reflect the needs of their particular prison population.”
Mr Grayling has come under mounting pressure to re-examine the policy since the issue was raised earlier this week by Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, in a critical article for a political website.
Her comments were picked up by author Mark Haddon, who galvanised Britain's literary establishment to speak out in protest. On Tuesday Alan Bennett, Sir Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Carol Ann Duffy and other respected writers signed a letter condemning the ban.
Mr Hardwick said the anger over the ban on books was a “symptom of a wider problem”, adding that he had seen “ludicrous” examples of harmless items being rejected by prisons. These included textbooks for educational courses, handmade Christmas presents from inmates' children - and in one case, a prison where pencil sharpeners were allowed but not pencils.
Labour said it would lift the ban on prisoners receiving books and review the IEP scheme if it came to power.
Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan said: “The Chief Inspector of Prisons is a widely respected figure and his criticism of Chris Grayling's book ban carries serious weight. Few people spend as much time in prisons as the Chief Inspector, and he knows what works to punish and reform those behind bars. The Justice Secretary would be well advised to listen to this warning, and dump his ridiculous policy.”
The Government has pointed out that there are no restrictions on inmates borrowing books from prison libraries, and that if they want to buy one, staff can order them from outside suppliers. But Mr Hardwick said gaining access to the libraries was often difficult for prisoners.
A report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons into HMP Liverpool, based on an unannounced inspection in October last year - before the more restrictive rules were brought in - concluded that the library service was “inadequate” and was used by few prisoners.
“In our survey, less than a third of prisoners stated that the range of material was sufficient,” the report said. “Library opening hours were very restricted and worse than at the last inspection. Prisoners from each residential wing could visit the library for 30 minutes each week, but few did. Staffing limitations meant many missed their scheduled visit.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The restriction on parcels was introduced five months ago and not a single Governor has reported any real concerns from prisoners that their access to books has been limited. Indeed, the majority of items sent into prisons were not books but overwhelmingly trainers or sportswear.
“Items purchased from legitimate sources have been - and will continue to be - available to prisoners but the public have a right to expect that items are not being sent into prisons that could be a potential threat to security or undermine the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme and in turn the rehabilitation process."