Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Tagged under: ,

Two Cheers for the End of the Book Ban!

Alex Cavendish gives only two cheers for the end in January past of the Draconian book ban in British jails. 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.
As regular readers will know, I’ve been following the saga surrounding the prohibition on the posting in of books to prisoners with considerable interest. The recent High Court decision that struck down the inclusion of books within the revised Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme reflected the deep unease that the whole matter has rightly generated.

The Howard League for Penal Reform and its many supporters, including politicians, journalists, authors, ex-prisoners and members of the general public, have made sterling efforts in bringing this issue to national and international attention. The campaign became a genuine cause célèbre of 2014 and raised public awareness of some of the nasty and often irrational things that go on inside our prisons as a result of poor policy-making by politicians and their sidekicks in the civil service.
PSI 30/2013: ban on books by post
I’ve noted in previous blog posts that I’ve seen at first-hand how this vindictive and counter-productive regulation was imposed via Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013. I’ve also witnessed its negative impact on the lives of many inmates, especially those who really want to improve their knowledge and reading skills or to study for external qualifications, so the news that the ban on family, friends and external organisations sending books will end is to be welcomed.

Moreover, cons earning £8 or £9 a week, assuming that they can even get work in our overcrowded prisons, are rarely going to be able to purchase books for themselves using their own meagre resources. Access to prison libraries is also often highly restricted, in part owing to current staff shortages. All this was highlighted in detail in the High Court judgement handed down by Mr Justice Collins in December.

My main concern, however, is that – as usual – the devil will be in the detail. So far, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) doesn’t appear to have issued any instructions to prison governors about how the lifting of the ban on posting in books from 1st February will actually work in practice. 

I’ve cautioned previously that I very much doubt that prison security departments will start accepting parcels sent in directly by families and friends of inmates. Many establishments didn’t allow this for years prior to PSI 30/2013 coming into force on 1 September 2013. In fact, I’ve only really been in one prison – ironically an awful Cat-B local – which regularly gave permission for prisoners to have books posted in from home. Even then, each specific book title requested had to be pre-approved via the submission of a written general app (application) to the wing manager.
Was it a crime to ban book posting?
There was no option for well-wishers on the outside to suddenly post in a book they thought a con might enjoy. There were no nice surprises on birthdays or at Christmas. The process was bureaucratic and in some cases apps could take weeks to get back with ‘approved’ scrawled across them. To be fair, I never had any title refused, but everything took time.

The great advantage of this particular nick’s system was that once you had the written permission in your hand, you could phone home and ask a family member or friend to parcel up books you already owned and send them in. This really saved money. Again, there could still be an extended wait – ranging from a week to a month or more – before the contents of the package had arrived at the prison, had been opened and checked by security (presumably including having drugs dogs give the volumes a good sniff) before they were sent up to the wing by Reception.
Updating a prisoner's prop card
Next, all hardcover books needed to be individually recorded on the ubiquitous ‘prop card’ (personal property record) by title and author. Presumably this was designed to prevent buying and selling on the wings. However – bizarrely – paperbacks were classed as ‘consumables’ and no record was required, regardless of the value!

Finally, once all the security checks and prop card records had been completed (and this could easily take days or weeks), the eagerly awaited books were ready for collection from the wing office. Even then, a written note was usually slid under your cell door informing you that books had arrived and were ready for collection.

Cumbersome as this system may sound, it did work, albeit slowly. I had the enormous pleasure of actually receiving books I’d purchased myself years earlier and now really wanted to read again from cover to cover or to have available for reference on the little table in my shared cell. 

There is something comforting in the feel and smell of having your own books around you, especially when you are confined in a tiny concrete box for up to 23 hours a day. I’d bought these items when I was still a free man and they became a sort of tangible reminder of my former life. In fact, I could often recall exactly when and where I’d purchased them: from Blackwell’s in Oxford or on the Charing Cross Road.
Happy memories of buying books
Several of my pad-mates also got the benefit of my mini-library which eventually extended to about 25 books – way over the arbitrary limit of 12 originally imposed by PSI 30/2013, a restrictive rule that also included any items borrowed from the prison library. It did not, however, include a Bible (or other sacred text) or dictionary, so the real in-cell limit was actually 14.

Just imagine serving a very long prison sentence and having to select just 12 books, up to six of which could be library loans, for your entire stretch. Which ones would you choose? 

Mercifully, this nasty little piece of vindictive twaddle was quietly dropped by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) even before Chris Grayling received his much deserved trouncing in the High Court. Maybe the lawyers had warned Team Grayling that this highly restrictive rule – which was impacting seriously on prisoners studying for Open University qualifications and other correspondence courses – just wasn’t going to be defensible on the grounds of common sense. 

So where do we go from here? My best guess is that there will be no return to families and friends being able to post in books directly from home. This would represent far too much of a climbdown for a Justice Secretary who has repeatedly claimed that his robust new rules were introduced on grounds of prison security – variously to keep drugs out or to prohibit ‘extremist’ literature from getting in.
Approved supplier to prisons
Instead, I suspect that from 1st February prisoners will have to submit a general app for each specific book they wish to receive. Once this has been approved in writing – probably by a custodial manager – they will be able to ask family members or friends to order the book for them via an approved supplier. In many prisons, perhaps all, this is likely to be It certainly was in at least three nicks I was in.

I won’t go into all the reasons that giving an effective monopoly to this particular vendor might be fraught with moral and ethical concerns. However, having the ‘choice’ of only one approved supplier will severely limit the range of books available to prisoners, particularly if specific titles are now out of print. Some works may also only be obtainable direct from specialist bookshops, such as foreign language books. Are they to be excluded from prisons because of new restrictions on where orders can be placed?

Stalinist? Us? Never!
Prisons may also insist that all books ordered from its approved retailer be brand new and come delivered directly to the establishment in sealed wraps for security reasons. While this system is certainly better than nothing, it could still impose wide-ranging restrictions on access to many books, especially specialist volumes needed for study, not to mention additional costs to be borne by prisoners’ families and friends.

As of today, the reality is that we really don’t know which way this issue is going to go. Perhaps down in the MoJ offices in Petty France no decisions have yet been taken. It seems characteristic of the current senior management within Team Grayling to make decisions on the hoof, without consulting governors or others who have professional experience of how prisons actually operate.

All sorts of new barriers could still be erected to thwart the spirit of the High Court judgement following a judicial review that was bitterly contested by Team Grayling at every stage. That’s why – at least for now – I’m only giving two cheers for the ending of the ban on posting in books to prisoners. 


Dutchjim said...

Hello Alex I read your writing every day. I am always interested in your prison pieces. My partner Al is in a Texas state prison. In US prisons, the inmates have no rights. Allen is very sick and weak. On December 28, he was raped by another inmate. Allen couldn't defend himself. He was taken to a hospital emergency room, and the tears in his rectum were sewn up. They did a DNA test and took photos. I just found out about this in February. The prison is bullying him into stating it was consensual sex. He refuse to state that, and they put him into ad-seg, 23 hours a day in a dark cell. He is allowed to use the shower for one hour, but he cannot go outside. I used to send him food and stamps, but all that is denied now.

AM said...


he was abused by the institution and inmates alike. This is terrible.

Alex Cavendish said...

Hi Jim, Thanks for your comment and for sharing your partner's terrible experiences in Texas.

Unfortunately rape and other sexual assaults in prisons are all too often tolerated by the authorities. Although there is a lower rate of such assaults in British prisons than US ones, the actual rate is really much higher than our Ministry of 'Justice' will admit. In many cases sexually-motivated attacks aren't reported because of fear, and even if they are, some prison managers prefer to sweep them under the carpet rather than inform the police so an investigation into a crime can be launched. It is truly a terrible situation when victims of crimes committed against them in prison are the ones who get punished. I've seen it happen in UK prisons too and is a real abuse of human rights.

Are you aware of Just Detention International? It is a campaigning group based in the US that raises awareness of such issues. Perhaps they can give you some more advice. Their website is:

I hope things improve for Allen soon. Alex