December 8, 2014

British prison book ban overturned


The Royal Court of Justice, in which cooler heads have recently prevailed. Image via Wikipedia.

The Royal Court of Justice, in which cooler heads have recently prevailed. Image via Wikipedia.

Controversial restrictions placed by the UK’s Ministry of Jusice on packages sent to prisoners, which effectively banned the receipt of books, have been lifted.

The Guardian reports that the restriction, which was part of a set of reforms to the IEP (Incentives and Earned Privileges) policy, was found unlawful by the High Court of Justice, in a decision that ends a year of public debate that has played out since the restriction was put into effect last November.

In his ruling, [Justice Andrew Collins] said that it was strange to treat books as a privilege when they could be essential to a prisoner’s rehabilitation. “A book may not only be one which a prisoner may want to read but may be very useful or indeed necessary as part of a rehabilitation process,” he said.

In a previous MobyLives report, we quoted Secretary for Justice Chris Grayling, who defended the ban (which applied not just to books but all small packages sent to prisoners) as a means to controlling an unchecked spread of contraband that was making him look bad. Further, he claimed that reading was not being banned, as prisoners still had access to (paltry) libraries.

This provoked a protest by as well as multiple notable authors who called bullshit, including British poet laureate Carol Anne Duffy. Grayling did himself no favors by writing an open letter in response to Duffy, in which he suggested prisoners buy their books via Amazon-a suggestion that Judge Collins rightly smacked down in his ruling as misleading, and not because we really don’t need more British government officials co-signing goes into further detail:

“This I am bound to say was somewhat misleading,” the judge states, “since it seemed to indicate that money sent in could be used with no constraints. In reality, that is not so since a prisoner cannot spend more than his or her weekly limit, however much is sent in by relatives or friends”. Under the ‘basic’ tier, that is just £4 a week. Even under the top ‘enhanced’ tier it amounts to just £25.50.

The basic tier rate is $6.23 a week, for our American readers – funds needed for toiletries, phone credits, and any non-prison food. Books are important, but putting the onus on the prisoner to buy them makes them prohibitively expensive, unless the books are made made of toiletries – and as I recently learned, the only book that fits that criteria may be a bit out of their price range.

The case that formed the root of this ruling was brought by Barbara Gordon-Jones, who is serving time for arson among other crimes. The prison in which Gordon-Jones resides has a decent library system, but her request was denied for five books which included novels by E.L. Doctorow, Philip Roth, as well as The Penguin Book of Saints. Though this request was later granted, the books were still unable to be delivered under the existing restrictions, which would only allow Gordon-Jones to get her books under “exceptional circumstances.”

Justice Collins’s ruling rested on the simple assertion of Grayling’s opposition that books are not a privilege, but are rather essential to rehabilitation and education. Restricting their access if not their existence in prison amounts to a counter-intuitive policy for a body like the IEP, that’s at least nominally meant to promote…you know, incentives.Contrast Grayling’s view with that of the Italian prison system, which incentivizes well-read prisoners with shorter sentences.

The US is not a shining paragon of prisoner access to literature, regardless of what you see on Netflix/Tumblr  – and while nonprofits are taking up some of this necessary work, this makes me  recall my time at a previous employer, a large publisher who received dozens of written requests from prisoners.

As my department’s address was printed in the copyright matter of each of the company’s books, we received every miscellaneous letter directly, including the “jail mail”, which we kept in a box and periodically combed through, answering the requests that could be answered with a particular form letter. The most useful form letter said that anyone looking to purchase could contact our customer service department.

However, the general policy was not to send books when requested, even if the prisoner planned to pay by some means – mostly because any book sent to a prisoner would likely be returned by a censor, who blocked deliveries depending on the content. At one point we got a bounced delivery of a gang member’s memoir of crime and ultimate rehabilitation; the censor had indicated the unacceptable content by just writing “throughout.”

This is a rare and promising development in the ongoing global tale of incarceration as social control, especially coming at the traditional time of year when anyone, in prison or not, would be getting gifts of books. For anyone in the UK planning to do so for a loved one serving time, may we suggest these retailers.

Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.