The myth of Grayling’s ‘book ban’

Jane Turner

Topics Politics

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When UK justice secretary Chris Grayling announced changes to prisons’ Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme last year, there was outcry from civil-liberties groups, writers, liberal-minded campaigners and, no doubt, one or two prisoners. The changes, which amounted to new limits on what prisoners could receive in parcels, were misleadingly branded a blanket ban on books. Some went so far as to liken Britain’s prison system to Guantanamo Bay.

Earlier this month, book-loving inmate Barbara Gordon-Jones, who is currently serving time for arson, led a successful challenge to the ban at the High Court, with the help of fee-waiving solicitors. On 5 December, the court ruled that Grayling’s restrictions were unlawful. Mr Justice Collins summed up by saying that ‘as far as books are concerned, to refer to them as a privilege is strange’. The ruling was quickly hailed as ‘good news for prisoners’.

But there was no actual book ban. The restriction was placed on all parcels being sent into prisons. This was not a ban on books per se, but a restriction on the number of books prisoners could purchase or have sent to them. There is no shortage of reading material in prisons. In fact, in the prison Gordon-Jones is in there are two very well-stocked libraries. Most prisoners are allowed to borrow as many as 12 books at once – much more than most local libraries allow. Yes, some prison libraries aren’t particularly well-stocked, but this is no different to most local libraries.

What’s more, it is still, despite the restrictions, relatively easy for prisoners to have new reading material sent in. Amazon operates accounts for prisoners and some prisoners receive newspapers and magazines through local newsagents, paid for by relatives or friends. While Grayling’s new restrictions did limit prisoners’ access to new books, they did not amount to an outright ban on prisoners ordering books in. Instead, it was an effort to encourage prisoners to comply with prison rules, meet certain standards of behaviour, and earn the right to spend their own money on books. In and of itself, this was pretty inoffensive.

The real problem afflicting UK prisons is not this phoney book ban, but an uncertainty about prisons’ role today and a tendency to treat prisoners like victims or addicts in need of therapy and support. Grayling’s IEP scheme was, essentially, a form of soft paternalism aimed at nudging, or ‘incentivising’, prisoners on to the straight and narrow. This was not a crackdown on prisoners’ right to read; rather, it was part of the ongoing tendency towards elevating behaviour management over punishment in our prison system.

Jane Turner is a teacher and a reviewer for the Manchester Salon.

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Topics Politics


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