Should prisoners have unlimited access to books?

Books to PrisonersThe bees are buzzing around my bonnet today. Earlier I had a bit of a go at Danny Alexander for falling in with the Better Together dourness in the Scottish Referendum campaign. Now, I have Chris Grayling in my sights. The Justice Secretary, under the guise of making the prisoners’ incentive scheme more “effective” has banned a number of things. The issue being given most prominence is that prisoners can no longer be sent books. The Howard League for Penal Reform’s Chief Executive Frances Crook condemned the change at

Book banning is in some ways the most despicable and nastiest element of the new rules. Prison libraries are supplied and funded by local authorities and have often been surprisingly good, but so many libraries are now closing and cutting costs that inevitably the first service to feel the pinch is in prison.

An inspection report published on March 18th on Wetherby prison, which holds 180 young boys, praised the jail for only containing the children in their cells for 16 hours a day during the week and 20 hours a day at weekends. Whilst many will not want to read a book to pass these endless hours, many boys I have met in prison do indeed read avidly.

I did a bit of digging, but all I unearthed was the official Ministry of Justice statement which rather sniffily suggested that it was all fine because prisoners can have 12 books at any one time. And they can buy them with the funds they earn every week for their prison work.They said:

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.

I’ve been looking up the Ministry of Justice guidelines on prison libraries. Prisoners have to be able to access them for at least half an hour a week. There should be at least 10 books per prisoner with an assumption that books will last for 5 years before being replaced. If you’re locked up for 20 hours a day, I can’t imagine that that is going to keep you going for particularly long.

If we can’t send books in to prisoners, maybe we should donate them to prisoners instead, just to make a point to Mr Grayling, as well as to widen the stock available to prisoners. Here’s a list of all the prisons in England and Wales. Choose one near you. Pick something off your bookshelf that you don’t need and send it in for their library.

Ah, but hang on a bit. What if the prisoners need a specific book?  My Marian Keyes novel or James Carville polemic on US election campaigning will not be much help if they actually need a copy of Catcher in the Rye for their GCSE English course. My internet wanderings took me to Haven, a charity which last year sent over 1700 specific books to help prisoners. Their annual report has some letters from the prisoners who have benefitted, like this one:

I’d like to thank you for sending me the Plumbing Revision Guide. This book proved to be a very valuable asset to me, as I achieved my levels 2 & 3 plumbing qualifications. I feel very grateful towards Haven Distribution, as without your charity, I’d have struggled to afford to buy this book myself as a serving prisoner.

Once you’ve taken a breath and got over the rage that these essential books or their courses aren’t supplied by the educational services within the prison, you have to wonder what prisoners like him are going to do now. Are we actually serious about rehabilitation or are we not? If prisoners can’t access what they need to rehabilitate themselves, then surely their chances of re-offending must go up.

Now, the book thing has all the attention and a petition and writers going mad about it. There are arguably worse elements to Grayling’s reforms. Back to Frances Crook:

Last November new rules were introduced so that families are no longer permitted to send in small items to prisoners. Children are not allowed to send a homemade birthday card…

The rules apply to clothing too. Prisoners are no longer permitted to have underwear sent in and so have to wear pants and socks worn by many 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.

The punishment bit of prison is deprivation of liberty. That’s it. What on earth harm is it to allow a 5 year old to make a birthday card for their mummy or daddy in prison? Surely the thought they put into it can only strengthen that bond while their parent is gone.

You’ve probably guessed that my answer to the question I asked is an unequivocal yes. Books are an essential part of life for me. They provide solace, knowledge, a workout for the imagination and, yes, distraction. Grayling needs to be careful about restricting too many of life’s essentials or he may well end up with riots on his hands.

Update: Thanks to Rob for putting the link to the petition in the comments.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Book-banning sounds too much like book-burning. It’s an easy, respectable campaign against that nasty Mr Grayling, and I’ve joined in the Twitterstorm and signed the petition.

    Pants and birthday cards are symbols of a different sort. Access to your own, non-scratchy underwear sounds like the ideal thing that you could notch up by good behaviour, but a birthday card from your child? Something to remind you of what you want to get back to, reassure you that it might still be out there for you? That’s a powerful (and cheap) rehabilitation influence, surely.

  • Frank Booth 24th Mar '14 - 9:16pm

    This all seems odd. I mean why would you want to ban the sending in of items like books and cards? Saw someone that the concern was about smuggling in contraband. Presumably with the cuts there are not enough people to check these things?

  • More (hesitates): Might I have one or two more books?
    Cromwell: You have books?
    More: Yes.
    Cromwell: I didn’t know; you shouldn’t have.

  • I think perhaps I will sen Mr Grayling a copy of the Book Thief.

    Books can transform lives, cards from kids can keep a link with the real world, and underwear… Well words fail me on that one.

    Not content with planning to ruin the probation service so they have less help when they are freed he wants to restrict small comforts whilst they serve their time. Shocking..

  • What is Simon Hughes doing about this? Frankly what’s the point of being in a coalition if we can stop crazy stuff like this – anyway you can sign the petition here.

  • The punishment bit of prison is deprivation of liberty. That’s it.

    Is what way is deprivation of the liberty to read any book you want not part of that deprivation of liberty?

    After all, prisoners are also deprived of the liberty to watch TV any time they like, to watch any DVD they happen to want, to play any video game they happen to feel likeplaying at any time, they are deprived of the liberty of choosing what food they would like to eat, deprived of the liberty of choosing what to wear…

    It may be that depriving them of books is depriving them of a liberty too far, but it’s illogical and nonsensical to say that the punishment of prison is only about depriving them of liberty, yet they should be at liberty to read any book they like. They are in prison; they have forfeited whatever of their liberties that society deems fit, and if society deems if fit to deprive them of their liberty to choose what to read then that is part of their punishment.

  • I think the concept is that if you can consistently separate people from the things that characterise us as human and as members of a humane society, then you can successfully deny those people their humanity; which appears to be somebody’s significant political goal. Not just with regard to prisoners, though that’s one place to start; we are also supposed to deny the humanity of people abroad, people from abroad, minorities, people on benefits, people without the right education, people without the right connections, and so forth. This campaign has been going on for a while now and has been so successful that we see members of this party (which ought to be the one most consistently and reflexively opposed to it) with the mindset that the average member of the population is either a present criminal or a criminal-in-waiting, and ought to be treated as such.

  • I also thought it was an essential part of liberal thought that people have rights, of which they can neither be justly deprived nor which they can themselves alienate, above and beyond what “society deems fit.” If “society deems” routine torture to be part of the prisoner’s lot, shall we shrug our shoulders?

  • Julian Dean 25th Mar '14 - 7:19am

    How far right does this Government want to go, banning books from prisons, immigration vans, withholding documentation such as the NHS risk register?

  • Fiona White 25th Mar '14 - 7:45am

    Prison is not just there for punishment by depriving people’s liberty. It should also be a time for rehabilitation and I would have thought that encouraging people to read by sending them books would be positive and not a negative thing. I always hear that keeping relationships with people outside prison is one of the most difficult things and is an essential part of them being able to stay out of prison when their sentence is ended. Stopping simple family contacts like home made cards from children should be a real part of that.

  • When will the prison service manage to actually achieve its policy of keeping illegal drugs out of prisons ?

    Heroin and cocaine, shared needles and other drug taking paraphernalia are not uncommon in Her Majesty’s Prisons.

    Might one suggest that Coalition ministers should be concentrating on that problem instead of treating books as if they are a problem?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 25th Mar '14 - 9:18am

    Not an unreasonable suggestion, Mr Tilley.

  • Peter Watson 25th Mar '14 - 9:59am

    Catching the end of an interview on the radio this morning (probably with Grayling) I got the impression that this was simply a way to save money on handling parcels mailed to prisons. The rest of the Minister’s comments sounded like flannel.
    I have to agree with Rob above: “what’s the point of being in a coalition if we can[‘t] stop crazy stuff like this”

  • I also thought it was an essential part of liberal thought that people have rights, of which they can neither be justly deprived nor which they can themselves alienate, above and beyond what “society deems fit

    And there is a legitimate discussion to be had as to exactly which rights those are. Is the ‘right to read’ (a) a real ‘right’ and (b) one of which they cannot be justly deprived?

    What you can’t do is simply assume the conclusion by claiming that the ‘right to read’ falls a priori outside the liberties which prison exists to restrict.

    Maybe it does; maybe it doesn’t. But it is not obvious either way, and so an argument must be made; not simply an emotive appeal to how ‘I would find life impossible without books!’ (in which case the simple solution is: don’t commit a crime that carries a custodial sentence).

  • Stephen W
    You provided a link to Conservative Home – which of course is a repository of truth and straight talking.
    I have just read the piece by Grayling on Prisons and books.
    Even if I had been gullible enough to swallow this in the first place once I got to the sentence where he assures readers that “all prisoners have acces to a well stocked library” then I knew he was just having a laugh.

    Mind you , residents of Sefton (where the Labour Party is destroying local libraries at enormous public cost) might now turn to crime as the best route to a “well stocked library”.

  • Laurence Scott-Macky 25th Mar '14 - 3:39pm

    YES YES YES – I almost thought I was reading about communist china or something not UK. I am ashamed of this very ashamed. Maybe Edinburgh can stop this law.

  • Frances Crook says that prisoners are not allowed to receive birthday cards. Chris Grayling says that prisoners can receive birthday cards.

    Anybody know which of them is telling the truth?

    I’m inclined to agree with Grayling that this is a storm in a teacup. Books are not being “banned” so long as prisoners can buy or borrow them. About four years ago, I visited a number of YOIs (for work reasons). At around the same time I visited all my local secondary schools while deciding which one to send my son to. It was very striking how much better stocked and equipped the prison libraries were than most of the school ones. So I really don’t think prisoners are being deprived of too much here – they still have superior access to books over many law-abiding children.

  • Julian Dean 25th Mar '14 - 5:24pm

    @John Tilley, Sefton have been forced to make 50mill cuts due to their reduced settlement, should they cut services such as Adult social further to save local libraries?

    You’re forgetting that the lib dems have empowered Pickles to slaughter areas like Sefton, Liverpool, Knowsley, Manchester and Brum, LA’s don’t close local services for the fun of it.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 25th Mar '14 - 5:58pm

    Stuart, they are allowed cards, just not home made ones, you know, the kind of card that kids put thought into and, as Fiona says, give motivation to the person in prison to change.

  • Stuart Mitchell 25th Mar '14 - 6:42pm

    I’m really curious about this card issue. I have been the delighted recipient of numerous homemade cards, and all of them would have fitted in an ordinary envelope. Am I missing something here? Is Frances Crook talking about something that goes beyond what most of us would call “a card”, and instead be classed as a parcel?

    Sorry if you think this is a trivial point, but when somebody says something as striking as “parents in prison are not allowed to receive homemade birthday cards from their children”, I think it’s quite important to be very clear about what this actually means.

    The relevant prison service document appears to be this one :-

    If I’m reading it right (see bottom of page 56), the only restriction is that greetings cards must be “not padded”. I can’t find anything that bans homemade cards.

  • Chris Manners 26th Mar '14 - 12:40am

    Part of this is likely to be about saving money- for obvious reasons, they can’t allow parcels in without security having a look a good look. Maybe books take a long time to check, don’t know.

    So sending prisoners your spare books is likely to make things worse, if that means stuff they ordered themselves or had sent in by friends sits around for yonks in reception.

    But I agreee, seems like a very bad policy.

  • Stuart Mitchell 26th Mar '14 - 9:36am

    I’m sceptical of Frances Crook’s comments about underwear too, given what she’s said about greetings cards.

    The prison service list (see link in my earlier post) says that women prisoners are all allowed 7 bras and 14 other items of underwear. These can be either taken in at the start of the sentence, received later via a one-off parcel, or purchased through catalogues once in prison.

    So under what circumstances would Frances Crook’s claim hold true? Can anyone substantiate this?

    Totally agree with Stephen W. There may be a real issue here, but it’s hard to discern given the amount of hyperbole.

  • Julian Dean
    What I was suggesting was that people in Sefton should not have to go to prison to find a library.
    You would seem to be suggesting otherwise presumably on the basis that Sefton Labour councillors do not have the wit or the imagination to do other than pass Pickles cuts directly on to local people rather than taking action to protect local people and their libraries. There will be people who know far more about the budget choices in Sefton than I know but I am guessing that the choices are slightly more varied than the one you put forward in your comment.
    If all Sefton Labour councillors can do is act as local agents for Mr Pickles’ cuts — it is time they gave up.

  • they are allowed cards, just not home made ones, you know, the kind of card that kids put thought into and, as Fiona says, give motivation to the person in prison to change

    Which do you think is more likely:

    (a) a bulky home-made card is a touching gesture form a kid to their incarcerated parent that will melt the parents’ heart and cause them to rethink their life of crime, or

    (b) a bulky home-made card is an ingenious method for smuggling drugs into the prison?

    If you think (a) is the more likely explanation… aww, bless. I hope you never have to meet the real world.

  • Mac
    You seem to think that drugs are smuggled into prison via birthday cards from the children of prisoners. You finish your comment with what I guess is supposed to be a dismissive “I hope you never have to meet the real world.”

    Well I don’t know which “real world” you live in but I am guessing it does not involve much direct knowledge of prison. I am also guessing that you have not even read much about prisons in the “real world”.

    You might want to improve your knowledge of the subject by reading a report of HMIP. If reading a whole report is a bit daunting you could start with this BBC account of the HMIP report on Oakwood —

    Oakwood is the largest privately run prison in the UK. You will note that it says that drugs are easier to obtain than soap. You will also see the various criticisms of HMIP following the detailed inspection of the prison.

    Having read this, you might want to reconsider your rather childish comment and how little you seem to know about the real world.

  • How do you think the drugs that are easier to obtain than soap got into Oakwood? Did Harry Potter teleport them in through the chimney?

    No, he did not. They get in in two main ways: corrupt prison officers, and packages from relatives. Packages which include ‘birthday presents’ of, for instance, shoes with the soles hollowed out and filled with drugs.

    Since the ban on packages from relatives, taking out one of those routes, the amount of drugs in prisons has fallen.

    I assume you agree that it is a bad thing that drugs are easier to obtain in prison than soap. Well, it is packages from relatives that make them so easy to obtain, so banning packages from relatives, and thus making drugs harder to obtain, can only be a good thing. Right?

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