Wednesday, March 18, 2015

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Books and Pants: the Battle Continues

Alex Cavendish draws attention to the battle of the books and boxers that prisoners have to fight in order to read and have clean underwear. It is not one of those tales about 19th Century Turkish prisons but British jails as run by Tory Toff, Chris Grayling, the Justice Minister. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.

I was planning to write only a brief post today owing to another pressing writing deadline, but as usual the subject took over. As I predicted pretty accurately in my previous post – Two Cheers for the End of the Book Ban! – the Ministry of (In)Justice (MOJ) has licked its wounds from the good judicial kicking it received in the High Court from Mr Justice Collins back in early December and has responded by rolling out a further revision of the controversial Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme.

Annex I – the fourth revision of Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013 since it came into effect on 1 September 2013 – lifts the ban on books being purchased for prisoners by family and friends. However, it also places restrictions on how these books can be supplied. You can find the latest version here via the MoJ website.

Books can now be ordered for prisoners
Under the previous arrangements, prisoners had been permitted to place orders themselves through the prison administration for books (and DVDs, CDs and games) as long as they were only using funds that were available from their internal ‘spends’ accounts – a combination of private cash allowances which depend on the IEP level and prison wages. In almost all jails the approved supplier was

The latest amendment to PSI 30/2013 has identified four newly-approved suppliers for book orders:

• Blackwell’s
• Foyles
• Waterstones
• WH Smith

Those wishing to send books to prisoners are now permitted to place orders with any of these suppliers for direct delivery to the prison. As I pointed out in my recent blog post on this subject, this is very similar to the system that existed in some prisons prior to 1 September 2013, although the range of approved suppliers is now much wider.

Because deliveries are made straight from the firm to the prison post room, this should eliminate (or at least reduce significantly) the risk that contraband might be concealed in a parcel. Of course, online-only ordering may still present problems for the 14 percent of people in the UK who don’t have access to the internet, including some older people who might want to send books to their relatives who are inside. Will any of the four approved suppliers allow people to place orders in person at their shops? Foyles has already indicated that it will only accept online orders for delivery to prisoners.
Amazon: is it 'done' as a prison supplier?
Interestingly, Amazon appears to have been dropped from the official list. The reason for this decision hasn’t been made public yet. I have no idea whether this could be linked to the ongoing probe into Amazon’s tax arrangements by the European Commission. It’s worth noting that Amazon robustly rejects any suggestion that it isn’t following the letter of the law.

Whether prisoners themselves can still place internal orders via the prison with Amazon for books, CDs, DVDs and computer games is also unclear although I am trying to find out from friends still inside. It would be bizarre if cons can still use Amazon, but their friends and families not. Perhaps this inconsistency will become institutionalised as a consequence. After all, the evidence from some of the four new approved suppliers is that the MOJ only invited them to participate in the scheme a few days before the revision to PSI 30/2013 was issued. Hardly evidence of careful or thorough planning.
One of the four approved suppliers
While this is typical of the chaos that appears to have become endemic inside ‘Calamity’ Chris’ ministry, I suspect this will also mean that no guidance has been issued to governors regarding Amazon’s existing status as an approved supplier to prisoners placing their own orders.

What is very welcome in the latest IEP revision is the decision to return a degree of local discretion to prison governors. “Books are only allowed to be sent or handed in directly by families and friends where there are exceptional circumstances that have been agreed by the Governor”.

At least this concession may mean that where particular volumes or textbooks can’t be sourced from any of the approved suppliers there is still the option to submit a governor’s application to get special permission. To be honest this is a better arrangement than I had expected.

As always with this sort of situation there will no doubt be some prison administrations that will make life as difficult as possible for prisoners and their families. I’m still willing to bet that certain establishments will require a reception app (application) that will need to have been approved in advance of an order being placed. Again, this was certainly the practice in one Cat-B local during my time there.
Audio books for those who need them

It is also good to note that those prisoners who have certain disabilities will also be permitted to receive audio books on CDs or cassette tapes. Presumably the MoJ realised that unless it made specific provision for prisoners in these situations there could be a further challenges on the grounds of unlawful discrimination under the Equalities Act. As it is, common sense appears to have prevailed for once.

Funnily enough, the IEP revision also nails the whopper – probably inadvertently – that the reason for the ban on posting books into prisoners was to prevent “extremist” or other inappropriate literature getting into our prisons. As Annex I makes clear:
Restrictions on the books which prisoners are allowed to have access to remains unchanged. The Public Protection Manual sets out the books that no prisoner can have access to and Governors can extend this list if the nature of the particular prison’s population requires it.  In addition, Governors can decide whether an individual prisoner should have a particular title, taking into account the prisoner’s offending behaviour.
"It was only a tiny, little whopper!"
So there you have it! All the defensive bluster and mock indignation issuing from the MOJ about keeping “extremist” material out at the time the ban on sending books in to prisoners was being challenged is exposed as complete poppycock – by the MOJ itself. This clearly shows that the power to block such literature was already in place, a point I raised in a previous post on the subject: Time for One More Whopper, Chris?

However, the problem of pants (and other underwear) remains outstanding. A recent announcement by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) appears to have lifted specific restrictions on the number of items of underwear each prisoner is permitted to have in possession in their cell. This move followed pressure from within women’s prisons over the problems that many female prisoners were experiencing with hygiene issues, particularly during menstruation, owing to these rules.

Initially there did seem to be some confusion as to whether this IEP scheme revision would apply to men’s prisons in England and Wales. However, I’ve noted that the latest version of PSI 30/2013 does seem to remove specific limits by number of garments and merely refers to the general level of volumetric control that applies to most personal possessions held by prisoners. There is still a limit of 10 pairs in respect of socks, but when it comes to underpants (knickers, ‘undercrackers’ or ‘shreddies’) your two volumetric boxes are now the only limit.
Prison boxer shorts - rarely this clean
The next battle should be to eliminate the unhygienic and humiliating practice of requiring male prisoners to wear communal pants and socks that have often been worn – and sometimes stained – by many others before them. This appears to have been eliminated in women’s prisons, so it’s high time that arrangements were made to ensure that male prisoners are treated with equal decency.

There are various ways in which this could be done. A simple and effective way would be to add cheap new underpants and socks to the weekly canteen sheet so prisoners could buy their own as required. A few prisons do offer socks already so it shouldn’t be too complex to add pants. Another option would be to do a deal with a major high street supplier – such as Sports Direct or Primark – that could supply cheap underwear via the prison at a price most cons could afford.

Some prisons insist on only allowing prisoners to place internal orders for clothing with more expensive catalogue companies – such as Very – that effectively have a monopoly within those institutions. While this may be fine for well-heeled inmates who have a regular supply of money coming in from home and like pricey designer labels, it would take a con on an average prison weekly wage of £8 a full week’s income to earn sufficient credit to purchase three pairs of socks or two weeks’ entire earnings to buy a single pair of the cheapest underpants on offer from the Very catalogue.
M&M catalogue: cheaper
In comparison, the cheapest equivalents from the M&M catalogue – which is the approved supplier in some prisons – are around half the prices being charged by Very. Not all establishments have approved orders from this catalogue for reasons that aren’t at all clear. It certainly can’t be on security grounds as M&M does send direct to some specific nicks.

I’ve yet to find any prison that has approved orders for clothing from Sports Direct, even though this supplier currently offers a single pair of socks from 49p and underpants from £2.50. Prices like these would be much more affordable for the majority of prisoners who are on a typical fixed prison income.

Of course, offering prisoners the opportunity to buy their own cheap underwear and socks makes perfect sense. Not only it is much more hygienic and psychologically healthier, but it would also save the taxpayer money as fewer pairs of prison-issue would be required. Sadly, such common sense seems to be in short supply in the MOJ at the moment where the ideological focus seems to be all about degradation and humiliation of male prisoners, rather than on human decency and rehabilitation.


Middlenglander said...

Couldn't agree more. I have suggested to the Howard League that we campaign on the issue of jocks and socks. Of course, until we find out which lot get their snouts into the trough in May, nothing is going to change.