New prison service rules prohibit prisoners in England and Wales from receiving books and essentials from the outside world. The imposition of a sweeping restriction on family and friends sending such items to their loved ones behind bars is an inordinately oppressive measure. The blanket ban constitutes a disproportionate interference with prisoners’ rights as it unduly impedes access to education and rehabilitative resources.
The new rules, which came into effect in November 2013, amended the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013). They curtail prisoners’ rights to receive commodities from family and friends. Representatives of the Howard League for Penal Reform have expressed serious concerns about the scope of the provisions and their rational connection to legitimate penological policy.
Prisoners may only receive parcels in exceptional circumstances at the discretion of the prison governor. Exceptional circumstances are narrowly defined along the lines of articles necessary to assist with disability or health and artefacts for religious observance. The sending of birthday presents, underwear and clothing is included in the ban and there is evidence that these restrictions will disproportionately affect female prisoners, who depend on family for additional clothing. But the greatest consternation has been expressed at the prohibition on sending books.
Books are a hugely important resource for prisoners. They provide the means through which prisoners can learn the skills necessary to live within the law outside of prison walls. Access to books promotes literacy and comprehension. Depending on the subject matter, reading also facilitates the development of compassion, social skills and greater societal awareness. These are abilities which many of us take for granted. But for those apparently stuck in a life of crime, they can provide a lifeline to a more peaceful existence.
Rehabilitation is an important objective of, and justification for, incarceration. This has been recognised both nationally and internationally. Prisoners need access to the resources in prison that will prepare them for reintegration into society on release. That is why it is important not to impede prisoners’ access to these valuable resources.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has attempted to justify the new measures. He argues that prisoners have prison libraries at their disposal, so access to books is not being restricted. Yet in the current age of austerity, library provision in public institutions is far from a priority. He states that employed prisoners are free to purchase books for themselves if they wish. But for many, the cost of one book would be a full week’s wages. The new approach as a whole sits ill at ease with the government’s professed commitment to encouraging prisoners to read.
If the concern behind the new rules is to prevent contraband from entering prisons undetected, the answer is to instigate better checking procedures before sent items are allowed into prisons. The answer is not to prohibit items from being sent in altogether.
Grayling tries to argue that the policy is part of his ‘rehabilitation revolution’. Of course it is necessary to have a system incentivising good behaviour in prisons. But imposing a blanket ban on sending books and essential items is not a proportionate way to achieve this. It is entirely unclear how this encourages rehabilitation. If an important aim of the criminal justice system is to provide prisoners with the tools they need to re-enter society, then surely limiting access to educational tools and necessities is pernicious to this aim.