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5 December 2014

How a year-long battle against restricting books for prisoners played out

As Christmas approaches, it is extremely welcome news that families may once again be able to send books as gifts to their loved ones this year.

By Cat Lucas Cat Lucas

Earlier today, restrictions on sending books to family and friends in prison in England and Wales were declared unlawful by the High Court. Mr Justice Collins, who was presiding over a judicial review brought by prisoner Barbara Gordon-Jones against the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, and the Governor of HMP Prison Send, declared that categorising books as “a privilege is strange”.

The ruling comes after a year-long battle with the Ministry of Justice over prisoners’ access to books. The Books for Prisoners campaign was launched in response to restrictions introduced by the Ministry of Justice a year ago as part of a crackdown on what ministers described as prisoners’ “perks and privileges”. One of the central arguments throughout the campaign, which has been widely supported by leading writers including Jackie Kay, Martin Amis and Ali Smith, has been that books are a necessity, not a privilege. A letter to the Prime Minister in March, signed by 40 leading writers, stated:

Reading goes hand in hand with education and rehabilitation, whilst research shows that informal learning reduces re-offending. It can also be a calming influence in a chaotic environment. We should be doing everything we can to encourage reading in prisons, and certainly not be restricting prisoners’ access to books.

David Cameron’s response to the letter, delivered to Downing Street personally by Sir David Hare, Mark Haddon and others, was disappointing. He, like Chris Grayling before him, refused to meet authors and campaigners to discuss the policy further, claiming in a letter in response that ‘there is little I can add to the Justice Secretary’s explanation which he gave in his letter to the Poet Laureate’.  During today’s hearing the judge described the very same letter as ‘misleading’. Nevertheless, the response from the Ministry of Justice to today’s ruling reiterates the exact same messages, with the Prison Service spokesperson stating:

There never was a specific ban on books and the restrictions on parcels have been in existence across most of the prison estate for many years and for very good reason.  Prisoners have access to the same public library service as the rest of us, and can buy books through the prison shop.

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On 1 December, English PEN and our campaign partners at the Howard League for Penal Reform launched a digital online calendar to serve as a daily reminder of the restrictions, featuring leading writers recommending the book they would send to a prisoner and why – the latest in a long line of actions in protest at the restrictions. While today’s ruling is enormously welcome, the Ministry of Justice may still choose to appeal – they have until next Friday, 12 December, to do so. We will therefore be keeping up the pressure until family and friends are once again able to send books to their loved ones in prison. Here’s hoping Chris Grayling will demonstrate some Christmas spirit and no longer stand in their way.

Cat Lucas is the Writers at Risk programme manager at English PEN