THE BLOG

The Educational and Rehabilitative Power of Books

26/03/2014 14:18 GMT | Updated 26/05/2014 10:59 BST

On Sunday I read a blog by Frances Crook of the Howard League for Prison Reform. She wrote that since October last year, prisoners have been banned from receiving books in the post from relatives.

Looking elsewhere online I soon discovered that my outrage was shared by many others, including some of the UK's leading authors. I went to change.org and started a petition and within three days 15,000 signed it.

The debate has rumbled on this week and Chris Grayling, the minister responsible for the decision responded. Somewhat strangely he didn't respond directly to me nor to any of the petition signers but posted a generic and in some places bewildering reply which failed to address the key concerns of people who are worried about these new rules.

The petition was not purely about the availability of books, but also about new restrictions on family items which many experts agree could have a huge impact on families where one member is in prison. These ties are a key part of rehabilitation for prisoners but are also crucial for children on the outside - making them feel connected to incarcerated relatives and may even help them to choose a different past than those on the inside.

In Mr Grayling's response to the petition, he makes an array of explanations about the changed rules. He says that the shift is to make the rules consistent across the prison estate - this doesn't appear to be the case as stories abound of how these rules aren't applied consistently.

Moreover, Prison Officers have said that they are more than happy to continue to screen parcels because of the beneficial effects they have on prisoners receiving them - if those on the frontline are sure of the positive impact that books and gifts can have then how can Chris Grayling really suggest he knows better?

Lastly, there can be no debate on the value of books in general and cutbacks in prisons across the UK have meant that library stock is much diminished and access time has significantly declined. Given that not all prisoners can earn money, and certainly not enough to buy books, the books and gifts sent from loved ones are a lifeline. To stop them is just cruel.

We are asking the government to urgently review the situation, rather than merely defend it. We asked the justice secretary to give thought to the value of maintaining family bonds, not least from the perspective of any children. We asked him to consider the educational and rehabilitative power of books, rather than viewing them as something to trade with, like chocolate or cigarettes.

Nothing that Chris Grayling has offered so far addresses the issues we raised. Now thousands of us are ask you again to stop and think more deeply about the role of books and childrens' gifts in a civilised prison service.