'Let prisoners receive books in the post,' thousands of petitioners urge Justice Secretary Chris Grayling

Campaigners have called measures that stop family and friends from sending prisoners small items "draconian"

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The Independent Online

Thousands of people have signed a petition which urges the Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling to scrap rules which restrict prisoners from receiving books in the post.

The campaign follows a blanket measure announced by Chris Grayling last spring and introduced on 1st November, that bans prisoners in England and Wales from being sent small items.

These would include birthday cards from their children, magazines to help them pursue hobbies, and clothing.

The document by the National Offender Management Service reads: “Prisoners will not be handed in or sent in [items] by their friends or families unless there are exceptional circumstances.” It adds that Governors are given the responsibility of deciding what constitutes "exceptional circumstances", including “disability/health aids or an artefact for religious observance.”

While the clause states that clothing can be sent if the prisoner’s access to laundry facilities are restricted, the rules would see inmates forced to only wear pants and socks issued by the prison which are likely to have been worn by other people. 

“Women prisoners are particularly hard hit by this rule as they are not provided with a uniform and are dependent on family for underwear and outerwear. If underwear cannot be sent in, women are forced to wear the same pants and bras for months,” Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, wrote in an article for Politics.co.uk that sparked the petition.

Signatories are calling for Mr Grayling to “review and amend rules which restrict prisoners access to books and personal items from families, in particular from children."

Less than 24 hours into its launch, the petition has received almost 5,000 signatures, around 90 per cent of which were added on Monday morning.

Ms Crook told The Independent: “Over the last year, because of shrinking prison budgets, staff cuts and increasing numbers, prisoners are spending even longer in their cells.

“It is common for prisoners to spend 20 hours a day in their cells during the week. At weekends they can be cooped up from Friday lunchtime until Monday morning. Conditions have deteriorated so much in recent months that this has become a major concern.

“In those circumstances it is the little things that make a difference. Being able to read a book is a lifeline and a way of nourishing the mind.

“As families and friends are now forbidden from sending basic items into prison, prisoners are sitting in stinking cells, wearing dirty clothes, with nothing to do and not even a book to read.

"We urge the government to reconsider this draconian measure," she said.

International best-selling author Emma Donoghue slammed the ban during a live Q&A via The Independent on Twitter, and said: "Reading/studying would seem to me one of the only worthwhile ways to spend a prison day."

Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright told The Independent: "The notion 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."