May 1, 2014

Prison Reform Trust says book ban “motivated by political considerations”


2028432_p4aLate last year, the British Ministry of Justice unveiled a series of striking new rules to the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme, which regulates what privileges prisoners are allowed based on behavior and staff reports. The most controversial change banned prisoners from receiving books in the mail “unless there are exceptional circumstances.”

For a few months, the changes seemed to fly under the radar. But last month, they finally provoked a firestorm. Writing for in March, Frances Cook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform objected to the new rules:

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…. Punishing reading is as nasty as it is bizarre.

As MobyLives noted earlier, this isn’t a book ban per say—it bans the receipt of books, not books themselves and does not affect prison libraries—but that doesn’t mean the actions taken by the Ministry of Justice aren’t odious. Thousands of people signed petitions demanding that the UK government rescind the ban; and writers, including Julian BarnesIan McEwan, Mark Haddon, and UK poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy spoke out and demanded to meet with UK Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to discuss it.

Grayling hasn’t helped the matter much—he defended the ban, at one point, by dubbing prisons “holiday camps” and made it clear that there was more going on when he said:

“For too long the public has seen prisoners spending their days languishing in their cells watching TV, using illegal mobile phones to taunt their victims on Facebook or boasting about their supposedly easy life in prisons. This is not right and it cannot continue.”

Grayling later wrote that the ban is necessary because:

“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.”

Of course, easing the burden on prison staff and punishing prisoners for “[taunting] their victims on Facebook” (which surely isn’t a common occurrence) are very different explanations—while it’s possible that the decision was partially motivated to improve safety and lower costs, Grayling’s drivel about “holiday camps” makes it clear that there was a political component—and probably a large one, at that—to this decision. Unsurprisingly, Grayling’s response—simultaneously calculated and tin-eared—only provoked more outrage. 

Enter The Prison Reform Trust, a 33 year old organization devoted to creating “a just, humane and effective penal system,” which recently weighed in on the controversy with a report titled “Punishment Without Purpose.” It’s a damning document.

It begins by attacking the justice and fairness of the changes made to the IEP policy, arguing that they “compromise its effectiveness as a policy based on the fair and just allocation of sanctions and rewards…. the changes… strike at the heart of the idea of prison as a place of fairness, decency and rehabilitation.”

According to the report, “The IEP scheme is designed to promote conforming behaviour through rational choice. Its legitimacy is under-pinned by careful monitoring of its application to ensure that benefits and deprivations are distributed fairly. People are more likely to accept that prion is run fairly if it ensures decent conditions and respectful treatment of prisoners, and provides reasons for all decisions including those that disadvantage them.”

But the changes made by Grayling last year undermine the IEP’s effectiveness by being confusing and unfair—they also severely affect the quality of life of prisoners who belong to what’s called the “basic regime.” (Prisoners are separated, based on staff reports and behavior, into three levels: “basic” (the lowest), “standard,” and “enhanced.”) Unsurprisingly, those on the “basic regime” are most likely to reoffend. I’ve highlighted a few of the report’s most important takeaways below.

The changes made to the IEP make rehabilitation more difficult: 

“A fundamental purpose of prison is to ensure that people are less likely to offend when they return to their community. This principle is compromised if aspects of the prison regime that reduce the risk of reoffending, such as family contact, education, work and training, are restricted for punitive reasons or provided selectively to individuals who are most compliant.

“Despite the Justice Secretary’s claim that the changes to the IEP scheme were aimed at reducing reoffending by “making [people in prison] work towards their rehabilitation,” the new policy puts at risk the purpose of prison as a place of effective rehabilitation and resettlement.”

Prisoners can still acquire books from libraries, but those libraries are understaffed, underresourced, and rarely open: 

Previously the families of… prisoners could have sent them a pack of cards, board games, books or magazines to give them something to do. Prisoners are now forced to pay for these items or obtain them from under-resourced prison libraries. Due to reduced staffing levels, in most prisons access to the library is very limited.

Restricting access to books also restricts access to education: 

The Howard League for Penal Reform has highlighted the impact of the IEP scheme on opportunities for education and learning through its “books for prisoners” campaign. The government’s own research has shown that education can reduce reoffending by a quarter. However, to complete courses successfully, people need access to essential books and learning materials.”

Proving “good behaviour” is harder than ever: 

The ability to demonstrate good behaviour under the new IEP scheme is largely dependent on prisons being able to supply sufficient places on offending behaviour programmes and in work, education, and training. However, as the Chief Inspector of Prisons has highlighted, rates of purposeful activity in prisons have “plummeted” over the last year. The Insepctorate reported the worst outcomes for six years with purposeful activity judged to be inadequate in over half of prisons inspective.

These changes deeply affect prisoners: 

One prisoner described how the new scheme has affected his sense of fairness of the prison regime and his own self-worth:

“From being a settled lifer, working years to gain trust and respect from a difficult enough system, I find myself regarded as nothing. The basic regime is inhumane; it will give me just over an hour out of my cell. For years I have contributed to our community, always worked. My behaviour has been impeccable and I have mentored many inmates in several field. Now in one fell swoop Chris Grayling has taken everything from me.” ….

Evidence suggests that the move to basic regime can have a significant negative impact on mental wellbeing and lead to an increased risk of suicide and self-harm.

The UK government’s inconsistent response to the controversy suggests these changes made were made for political reasons: 

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the changes to the IEP scheme were in large part motivated by political considerations. The Justice Secretary has sought to present the changes as a part of his “rehabilitation revolution.” However, as we highlight in the briefing, the new scheme significantly undermines the purpose of prison as an effective place of rehabilitation and resettlement.

The perception that the changes have been driven by a desire to appear tough, rather than by evidence of what works to reduce reoffending, is reinforced by the differing reasons the government has given for introducing the policy. When the ban on prisoners receiving books was criticized in the national press, the main justification for the new scheme changed from one of promoting good behaviour and reducing reoffending to concerns about security and preventing drugs getting into prisons.

But the “security” explanation is bunk: 

Responding, Steve Gillan, General Secretary of the Prison Officers Association, said:

“For decades prison officers have dealt with parcels. They searched them. The reality is it was never a problem. Now and then people tried to smuggle drugs in that way. But as professional prison officers we found these items. The majority of these books and magazines that came in didn’t have any drugs in them at all. People have been having their books sent in for 20, 30 years and now all of a sudden it’s become a big issue for the secretary of state.”

The title of the Prison Reform Trust report is apt: this is punishment without purpose. These were changes made without the best interests of prisoners at heart—rehabilitation is out, solitude and mistreatment are in—and they were changes made for calculated, cynical, and political reasons: the UK isn’t immune to culture wars. And the restrictions place on prisoners extend beyond education and entertainment. As one mother wrote,

“We have heard a lot about the ban on books in recent weeks. But this is the one tangible link you can have with your family: … ‘I thought you might enjoy this – I did’ or ‘a few crosswords to keep you busy’. This prohibition isn’t only about reducing opportunities for learning. It also removes the last possibility of a gift, a tangible piece of human warmth.”


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.