Book ban rules quashed by Gove

The Prisons Handbook 2015
The Prisons Handbook 2015

Michael Gove has overturned restrictions on books for prisoners.

The Justice Secretary has ordered a rule limiting the number of books allowed in each cell to 12 to be scrapped, while relatives and friends will now be able to send books to inmates directly.

Mr Gove’s intervention – one of his first key changes to prison policy since being appointed – is part of a drive to prepare criminals for work when they are released and reduce reoffending rates.

Controversy erupted after rules introduced in 2013 banned inmates from receiving parcels unless there are “exceptional circumstances”. In effect, this stopped prisoners in England and Wales from being sent books, although they still had access to prison libraries.

However, a High Court ruling in December found that restricting prisoners’ access to books was unlawful. Subsequently, restrictions were eased to allow people to buy new books for prisoners through four approved retailers.

The changes announced today will allow friends, relatives and charities to send parcels of books directly to inmates without having to buy them through specified sellers.

Mr Gove is also removing the 12-book limit, meaning prisoners will be allowed as many books in their cells as they like as long as they observe overall limits on the volume of personal possessions.

He said: “We have more than 80,000 people in custody. The most important thing we can do once they are in prison is make sure that they are usefully employed and that they get the literacy and numeracy and other skills they need for success in work.

“One of the big influences on my thinking on social policy is Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute.

“He believes that we should see all human beings as assets, not liabilities. I agree. Every individual has something to offer, every one of us can earn respect.

“People who are currently languishing in prison are potential assets to society. They could be productive and contribute. If we look at them only as problems to be contained we miss the opportunity to transform their lives and to save ourselves and our society both money and pain.

“All of us suffer when people leave prison and then re-offend, all of us benefit when individuals are redeemed.”

The rules on receiving parcels will remain but they will be amended to include an exemption for packages containing only books.

Governors will retain discretion to withhold any books which they deem inappropriate, not conducive to rehabilitation, or contrary to the safe running of the prison. All packages of books will be subject to full security checks, including using sniffer dogs and scanning technology, before they are passed on to prisoners.

The changes, which will come into effect on September 1, were welcomed by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Chief executive Frances Cook said: “The announcement by Michael Gove that prisoners will soon be able to receive books directly from their friends and family members, or indeed from any concerned individual or charity, is a fantastic final coda to the Books For Prisoners campaign.

“It is particularly welcome to hear the Secretary of State describe prisoners as assets and not liabilities.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman confirmed: “We are amending prison policy so that friends and relatives can send books to prisoners directly. We are also removing the limit of 12 books per cell.

Legal Challenge – but is there really a ban on prisoners having books?

Prisoner reading a book

The government’s so-called ban on prisoners receiving books is facing a legal challenge, with one prisons expert asserting there is no ban on books at all.

The Ministry of Justice and secretary of state Chris Grayling have been criticised over the Earned Privileges Scheme, which sees prisoners banned from receiving books and other items in the post.

Now a female inmate, known as BGJ, has decided to challenge the ban, according to the BBC.

BBC Newsnight’s political editor Emily Maitlis said: “She [the prisoner] is an epilepsy sufferer, very highly qualified and she has said her life is in despair without access to these books, which have really been taking her through this life sentence that she will serve.”

The MoJ says the legal challenge comes outside of the three-month window for appealing against a new policy, as the scheme was introduced in November.

The BBC said the lawyers would press ahead with the challenge, arguing that the policy had been brought in at different times in different prisons and that BGJ had only been affected in the past 10 days.

Authors and human rights groups have condemned the policy, which Grayling has previously defended as a measure to stop illicit materials being smuggled into prisons.

Writers including Carol Ann Duffy, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Mark Haddon have protested against ther ban, but Mark Leech, editor of Converse, the national newspaper for prisoners in England and Wales said there was no ‘ban on books’ just a restriction on where they could come from.

Mr Leech said: “Anyone who reads Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013, which brought in the new Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme, can see there is no ban on books at all – just a general restriction that they cannot be sent in from family because of cases where pages have been doused with liquid drugs which are then cut up and sold to prisoners – but even then Governors have discretion to allow it [para 10.4].

“For example page 46 of PSI 30/2013 states ‘Specialist products including.. books.. may be purchased by prisoners for their own use’.

“Page 56 states Prisoners are allowed a maximum of 12 books in possession for their own use, and page 62 says that Governors may not prevent unconvicted prisoners from having supplied to them at their own expense..books.

“Where is this ban – I am a publisher and we send around 100 books a week in to prisoners, none of which have been withheld.

“I believe that any legal challenge is destined to fail, it would be bizarre if the Secretary of State could not make restrictions on security grounds which limit potential souces of abuse, and the courts have a long history of being reluctant to look behind ‘security grounds’ advanced as reasons for policy.

“Its unlikely that any challenge will get off the ground anyway because the PSI came into force on 1st November 2013 and the rule is that any legal challenge to it must be brought ‘promptly’ and, in any event, not later than 3 months after the grounds to make the claim first arose infact there have been cases brought within the three month time limit which were nonethless ruled out of time because they were not brought ‘promptly’.” (CPR Part 54.5 and ex.p Finn-Kelcey)