Has the Ministry of Justice lost all sense of proportion, if not humanity? It is difficult to conclude anything else from the decision to put a blanket ban on friends and families sending so-called “small items” to prisoners. That such an embargo might apply to personal items such as birthday cards or underwear would be troubling enough, in the context of a penal system supposedly focused on rehabilitation of criminals rather than dehumanising treatment to push them further still from social norms. That it also applies to books is beyond belief.
Yes, prisons have libraries, so such a ban does not mean that those locked in their cells for up to 20 hours per day will have no reading matter whatsoever. But with institutional lending by its nature both limited and generic, and budget cuts militating against much improvement soon, the outcome is, simply, prisoners denied the opportunity to read what they wish to.
Nor does the iniquity of the move begin and end with the meanness of the measure and the boredom that is the most obvious result. If there is one thing, more than any other, that has the potential to turn around a life in the process of being misspent on criminality, then surely it is reading and education. By neutering prisoners’ desires to expand their mental lives, the prison system is both materially undermining their opportunity to better themselves and sending an unequivocal message that the system – for which, read society – does not care.
Except that society does care. Thanks to Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, the draconian restrictions have shot to public attention, and the best part of 10,000 people – including well-known authors from Philip Pullman to Linda Grant – have signed a petition calling for their immediate retraction.
So they must. It is not enough for the Ministry of Justice to point out the security issues associated with gifts sent in to prisoners. Neither is a new scheme of incentive and reward sufficient justification. Access to books ought to be an inalienable right in any civilised society. To use it as a bargaining chip is shameful, counter-productive and indefensible.