Grayling’s book ban is mean and nasty; his defence of it is typically disingenuous

According to Mr Grayling’s post on the Conservative Home website yesterday, opposition to his prison book and parcel ban consists of of “left wing pressure groups”.

His Conservative colleagues appear to disagree. The policy has “no backing from any quarter” according to one unnamed Conservative Minister quoted in the Daily Mail.

It is such an obviously stupid policy that it has in fact received support from almost nowhere outside the Ministry of Justice.

Anyone who has been inside a prison will have seen prominent signs near every entrance. As well as warning against the dangers of trying to smuggle contraband (which we must now assume includes Harry Potter or John Stuart Mill) they proclaim the reassuring mission statement of the Prison Service:

We keep those sentenced to prison in custody, helping them lead law-abiding and useful lives, both while they are in prison and after they are released.

In the light of the book ban it is a motto that rings hollower than ever. One of the best ways to learn how to lead a law abiding and useful life is to read lots of books.

It certainly beats the popular alternative of brooding in your cell thinking up new ways of attacking the nonces

Let them get books from the prison library, says Mr Grayling, ignoring the fact that many prison libraries contain an extremely limited selection of books even assuming that prisoners are able to get to them. As the benevolent organisation Books for Prisoners puts it:

UK Prison libraries if they exist are often quite limited, and prisoner access to them is often highly restricted. The only way to ensure your family members or friends have access to quality books is to send them yourself. This is the only way for prisoners to access reading material.

What is more about 13% of prisoners are foreign nationals many of whom have even less chance of obtaining reading material that they can understand from prison libraries.

Even in Colditz prisoners were permitted Red Cross parcels containing food and cigarettes, as well as four parcels a year from home, which were allowed to contain food, clothing and books.

How does that compare with the Minister of Justice’s now infamous rule on prison parcels:

… the general presumption will be that items for prisoners will not be handed in or sent in by their friends or families unless there are exceptional circumstances.”

We should note that this is a blanket policy that is applicable to all prisoners, including the 13%i who are unconvicted and awaiting trial, the only exceptions being that unconvicted prisoners are still allowed to receive some clothing and writing materials, and newly convicted prisoners can receive a “one off” parcel of clothing, at the Governor’s discretion.

On this issue at least Mr Grayling seems not just less enlightened than all his coalition colleagues but harsher even than that well-known pinko Oberstleutnant Schmidt, Kommandant of Colditz.

The ban, which was introduced with a typically mean sense of timing in the lead up to Christmas last year, covers not just books but any item that families might wish to send in to their relatives. It meant, for example, that children were not allowed to send Christmas presents to their gaoled parents, something that did no good to anyone but contributed in its own small way to the further destruction of already damaged families.

Mr Grayling now claims that his ban has something to do with “security,” so often an excuse for cruel official behaviour:

There’s good reason for it. We have about 85,000 people in our prisons. If each received a parcel each week, we would have something like four and a half million parcels a year coming through the prison gates. It would be a logistical impossibility to search them all, and they would provide an easy route for illegal materials.”

When Mr Grayling resorts to statistics to buttress his arguments you can be pretty sure they are bogus, or at least highly tendentious. This is a man who has been repeatedly censured by the UK Statistics Authority for issuing misleading statistics.

Until November of last year prisoners were entitled to receive parcels. Mr Grayling must know how many were actually sent into prisons before then, so why pick on the notional figure of four and a half million? Why not just tell us the actual number? Did each prisoner really receive an average of a parcel every week? It seems very unlikely, not least because many prisoners don’t have any family interested enough in their welfare to go to the trouble and expense of posting weekly parcels. If processing a theoretical 4.5M parcels annually is a “logistical impossibility” what number would be logistically “possible?” If “logistics” were really the problem then the parcels could have been restricted to one a fortnight, or one a month.

Nor has Mr Grayling revealed how much contraband, if any, was found being smuggled into prison in parcels. No doubt there was some, but drawing on my own experience of prosecuting and defending prison smugglers I suspect not that much. Drugs can be thrown over prison walls, can be brought in by corrupt prison officers or most commonly of all can be stuffed into body orifices. Noel “Razor” Smith – a violent criminal at least partially reformed by the effect of reading in prison – gives a vivid description in his prison memoir A few kind words and a loaded gun (Penguin 2005) of the practice known as “bottling” in which a plastic bag is filled with drugs:

… it involves inserting the parcel or ‘joey’ into the anus. Short of sticking their fingers up your arse, which some do, it is impossible for the screws to find the parcel.”

Given that these are well-tried and effective means of getting drugs and other illegal materials into prisons there seems no particular need to try to send them in by postal packages which, unlike a prisoner’s rectum, are easily searched.

In fact, however, Prison Service Circular PSI 30/2013 which introduced the parcel ban made no mention of security or “logistical impossibilities” at all. It was quite explicit that the purpose of the parcel ban was “ to ensure that the IEP [Incentives and Earned Privileges] scheme is not undermined.” In other words it was introduced in order to make life tougher for prisoners.

Some may think that prisoners’ lives should be made nastier than they already are, and if that was the reason Mr Grayling should at least have the courage to say so instead of inventing specious justifications for an otherwise pointless policy.

Others, and they are certainly not limited to “left-wing pressure groups,” will think that the ban is not only mean and cruel it is also likely to be entirely counter-productive.

Perhaps Mr Grayling ought to have another look at the Prison Service Mission Statement which is, when all is said and done, perhaps now a little too cosy for what is actually on offer in his establishments. Something more suitable, especially for prisoners from the European Union, might be taken from Dante. They certainly won’t have access to it in the Prison Library so the familiar translation should be printed as well:

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate

Abandon all hope ye who enter here!


iBerman & Dar Prison population statistics SN/SG/4334 29th July 2013 House of Commons Library

Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

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