April 4, 2014

Lots o’ famous authors demand meeting with UK Justice head over book ban


This guy says occasional visits to the library are enough. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

This guy says occasional visits to the library are enough. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Guardian reports that Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s poet laureate, and authors Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, and Mark Haddon have requested a meeting with Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice  Chris Grayling to discuss the recent “book ban” in UK prisons. Grayling put legislation in place to keep prisoners from receiving books from the outside world, which we’ve covered here and here.

Last Friday, Duffy staged a poetry reading outside of Pentonville Prison in London to protest and raise awareness about prisoners’ need for books. The “new” policy was implemented in November, but has shot to the front page of the news after Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Horward League for Penal Reform, wrote about the ban for politics.co.uk two weeks ago.

The League began a campaign to overturn this ban, and tens of thousands of people have signed the Change.org petition. Some are now sending photos of themselves to hashtags #shelfie and #booksforprisoners. (Don’t worry, we are rolling our eyes at “shelfie,” too. It’s a worthy campaign with a silly hashtag.)

On Monday, leading human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC said that Grayling was acting “unlawfully and irrationally,” that the new rules “breached the 1688 Bill of Rights,” and he has offered to build a case against Grayling for free. Robertson says:

Grayling is not a lawyer, he is a politician who seems to think he is above the law. He has no power to impose additional punishment on prisoners over and above that which is imposed by the courts. The action has nothing to do with prison security or any other legitimate purpose.

The right to read is precious in this country and for prisoners it is a way to lift themselves out of the slough of criminality. To deny them the books they need in order to improve themselves is both unreasonable and counter-productive.

Again, it’s going to be difficult to prove that this is a “book ban,” since the legislation is technically against packages of any kind. But thousands of people are riled up about this rule—protesters said it damages “the soul of the country”—and Grayling will not hear the end of this until something happens.

Grayling repeated that the prison staff did not have time to search these packages (though prison workers attest they had been doing so for years). “The arrival of thousands of unknown parcels in our prisons each day, whether containing books, essential items or anything else, would completely undermine these efforts. It would be a logistical impossibility to check them all in the level of detail that is needed, to properly explore whether apparently innocuous items contain drugs or other illegal items.”

The Telegraph reports this week that packages are rarely used to smuggle in illegal substances. You can read Grayling’s open letter to Duffy in full here, but at this point, he’s just fanning the flames. The famous writers are sure to respond with further letters, poetry readings, and cleverly-worded protest signs, it’s just a question of when and where.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.