The prime minister David Cameron has refused to meet with campaigners and authors seeking to overturn a ban on prisoners being allowed to receive books from friends and family.
Mark Haddon, Sarah Waters and A L Kennedy were among the authors who presented a letter to Number 10 Downing Street in June, protesting against the ban. The letter was signed by more than 40 high-profile figures including the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and novelists including Salman Rushdie, Philip Pullman, Julian Barnes and Alan Bennett, and backed by English PEN and the Howard League for Penal Reform.
However in a return missive to Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, Cameron declined a meeting to discuss the issue, saying that he had little to add to the justice secretary Chris Grayling's explanation on the matter.
"There is statutory library provision for every prison. Should a prisoner wish to have access to a book not available in the library they can put in a request for it to be supplied. Prisons can also use their own funds to buy books," the prime minister said. He added that while while there is a 12-book maximum on the number of books that can be kept in a prisoner's cell for space reasons, "there is no variation across the different levels of the Incentives and Earned Privileges framework and a prisoner's access to books is not linked to their behaviour."
"Moreover we are fully supportive of rehabilitation through education and have rolled out schemes such as the Shannon Trust Reading Network, which includes peer mentoring," Cameron said.
Crook told the Guardian that the prime minister's letter was "a disappointingly vanilla response to a serious problem", saying: "At a time when the number of people dying by suicide has risen to three a week, it is just plain cruel to curtail prisoners' access to books. Staff cuts and overcrowding mean that many prisons are now operating with only one prison officer to 150 inmates, so it is disingenuous to suggest they have time to take prisoners to the library."
She said that although prisoners can has 12 books, if they own them, they are not permitted to swap them with anyone else, so have to keep the same 12 books for the whole of the sentence. If a book is borrowed from the library, one of their own has to go into storage and will not be returned until they are released. "The rules are incredibly petty," she noted.
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