Prison books ban could be illegal, says PEN

Prison books ban could be illegal, says PEN

Freedom of speech charity English PEN has warned that the government could be acting illegally by banning the sending of books to prisoners.

Geoffrey Robertson QC, joint head of human rights practice Doughty Street Chambers, said that the ban denied prisoners their right to receive information, and suggested secretary of state for justice Chris Grayling could be taken to court for acting "unlawfully and irrationally". He added that it could be argued that Gralying breached the 1688 Bill of Rights by inflicting "cruel and unusual punishment".

Robertson said: "Mr Grayling is not a lawyer; he is a politician who seems to think he is above the law. He has no power to impose additional punishment on prisoners over and above that which is imposed by the courts. The action has nothing to do with prison security or any other legitimate purpose. The right to read is precious in this country and for prisoners it is a way to lift themselves out of the slough of criminality. To deny them the books they need in order to improve themselves is both unreasonable and counter-productive."

Under new rules introduced in November last year, prisoners were banned from receiving a number of items in the post, including books, stationery and specialist magazines. The ban is part of a wider system of "incentives and earned privileges", designed to encourage prisoners to earn rewards such as access to goods by reaching certain levels of behaviour.

Following a blog on the topic by Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, dozens of prominent writers including Ian McEwan, Carol Ann Duffy and Mark Haddon have protested the move, holding readings outside prisons and sending open letters to newspapers. The chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, called the ban "a mistake", and Labour has pledged to repeal the move. A petition against the ban has reached more than 23,000 signatures.

Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said: "Through our work in prisons, we’ve seen at first hand the necessity of access to learning and literature. The government needs to review its short-sighted policy urgently. This is a counter-productive measure that has shocked the public and the literary establishment, and we’re very disappointed by ministers’ response to the campaign. We should not need to resort to legal action to convince the government to drop such a manifestly unpopular and ill-considered policy."

Grayling has repsonded to the furore, saying: "The restrictions on access to parcels by prisoners are necessary because of the need to limit the ability of offenders to get hold of drugs and contraband… Prisoners have always enjoyed and continue to enjoy full rights of access to all the titles available through the local public library service, which operates a full service in all of our prisons. If titles are not available there and then, they can be ordered as normal."