The Ministry of Justice has marked World Book Day today with a tweet that describes how reading could help rehabilitate prisoners. Which appears perfectly reasonable:
— Ministry of Justice (@MoJGovUK) March 5, 2015
It's only that the MoJ spent much of 2014 fighting to keep a ban on prisoners receiving books from the outside world, only to have it declared unlawful by the High Court, which lawyers and criminal justice campaigners were quick to point out:
The tweet was particularly ironic given the High Court's decision to strike down the ban emphasised the role books could play in rehabilitation.
In his judgment in December, Mr Justice Collins said: "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."
@MoJGovUK after you fought to prevent folk sending books to prisoners?— Yasmin Hafiz (@yasminlibrarian) March 5, 2015
The campaign against the MoJ's ban was supported by renowned authors including Philip Pullman, Salman Rushdie and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy.
Andrew Neilson, the director of campaigns at penal reform charity The Howard League that fought the MoJ's ban, told The Huffington Post UK: "[The MoJ tweet] does seem rather ironic given that they spent most of last year resisting the attempts to get them to relax the ban on friends and family sending books to prisoners.
"They fought every step of the way of the way. They spent around £72,000 on lawyers' fees. So, the tweet was rather ironic. But then again, we do believe in reform and it's good to see the Ministry of Justice has reformed itself."
Harriet Johnson, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, said the irony of the tweet was "overwhelming".
"For the Ministry of Justice to now put itself forward as a champion of prisoner literacy is an insult to every man and women currently in prison, and to those who campaigned so tirelessly to have the ban lifted," she said.
"For many prisoners, owning their own books was the only real opportunity they had to read them. So prisoners trying to better themselves – which is, after all, what society asks from people in prison – were thwarted by the very ministry that was supposed to be overseeing their rehabilitation."
She added: "Chris Grayling ignored calls from charities, lawyers, reading groups and some of the best-known authors in the country, and pressed on with the ban regardless - in fact, the ban was only lifted when the High Court declared it unlawful."
A Prison Service spokeswoman told HuffPost UK its policy had never been "a specific ban on books".
She said: "In order to ensure the protection and safety of prisons we have put in place a new system which allows for books to be sent in via an approved retailer, either online or in high street shops.
"We remain fully committed to improving literacy in prisons to help equip offenders with the skills they need to get a job on release and turn their back on crime.
“We have rolled out schemes such as the Shannon Trust National Reading Network, which includes peer mentoring to improve reading levels. Prisoners also have access to the same public library service as the rest of us and can buy books through the prison shop."
Mr Neilson said allowing friends and family to send prisoners books was important because other ways of accessing were limited.
"Prisoners' access to the prison libraries has been severely curtailed because of staff cuts. They need staff to escort them from the cells to the library," he said.
"They can also buy books but they have to buy lots of other things. They don't get too much money and might have to save up for a month to buy a book."
He added: "It's vital that every effort is made to to broaden access to reading for prisoners. It doesn't matter if it's Key Stage literary texts, all the way up to War and Peace. They all broaden lives."