Dear Mr Grayling,
In your capacity as Justice Secretary for the Coalition Government, you have responsibility over the prisons system. In that capacity you recently banned prisoners from receiving books from friends, family members, charities, or rehabilitative organisations, as part of a general “tightening up” of prison rules. A brief round-up of Guardian coverage over the last few days can be gleaned from their original piece on the matter – ‘Mark Haddon helps launch online petition against prisoner’s book ban‘, ‘Don’t stop prisoners receiving books, they’re a vital rehabilitation tool‘, ‘Crime and punishment: psychology and book bans‘, ‘Grayling hits back at critics over ban on sending books to prisoners‘, ‘Ban on sending books to prisoners: ‘a very clumsy sledgehammer’‘, and of course, the Letters and Editorial pages have both had things to say.
Mr Grayling, I have to ask, what happened to compassionate, modern conservatism? This move, an attempt – in your own words – at populism, with no clear single reason behind it (is it about rewards and punishments, or about drug smuggling? Both have been put forward), seems to have been ill thought through. In a government that is pushing austerity measures for the fourth year in a row, a new prison regime that undermines the efforts towards rehabilitation that are driven by access to a wide variety of books undermines any attempt to cut spending on the criminal justice sector.
Books are a vital part of the rehabilitative process. Apart from their role in education (many prisoners being unskilled, and thus unable to earn a living after leaving prison; this adds to recidivism), reading fiction has a proven effect on the empathy of the reader, an important factor in a system of justice that increasingly focuses on ensuring criminals understand the emotional impact of their crimes. This move undermines the policies of the current and previous government in furthering that goal. Similarly, allowing books to be sent to prisoners keeps them in touch with the culture outside prisons; given cuts to library services across the board, which are expected to fund prison libraries, newer books, especially novels but also basic textbooks, are increasingly unlikely to be available in prisons, undermining the potential for rehabilitative action. This is where the ‘Big Society’ voluntarism proposed by Mr Cameron is stepping in to cover, and mitigate, the damage done by budgetary cuts; the new policy, however, undermines that voluntarism, denies its value, and indeed, focuses on populist politics over good policies.
The new directive also has severe impact within prisons. In a situation where a prison can be praised for “only” ‘containing the children in their cells for 16 hours a day during the week and 20 hours a day at weekends” (source), preventing these prisoners from accessing books to fill their time – even a limited, censored selection, but broader and more tailored to individual tastes than that a prison library is able to offer – leads directly to bored prisoners forced to turning to cause trouble to relieve the monotony. This is a disturbing possibility; books, however, provide an alternative to trouble-making, and while not every prisoner would necessarily take up the opportunity, removing it totally seems unwise.
Fundamentally, this is a question as to your priorities as Justice Secretary. If you simply want to play to the tabloids as a populist, “tough-on-crime” politician, this is indeed excellent politics, harking back to the days of the Conservatives as the Nasty Party. However, if you want to institute an effective criminal justice system that encourages reform of prisoners, and aims to put them in a position to turn away from crime, this policy must be overturned as soon as possible. Incentives to good behaviour are an intelligent, useful, indeed necessary part of a justice system. This, however, should not be among them.
This letter has been sent to Mr Grayling, and modified versions to my local MPs.