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28 March 2014

The Ballad Of Not Reading In Gaol: Carol Ann Duffy and others declaim for prisoners’ rights

A report from today’s Howard League protest.

By raphael gray

Is justice secretary Chris Grayling a philistine? The Howard League for Penal Reform thinks so. The campaign group held a protest today outside HMP Pentonville to oppose his ban on the sending of books and other small items to British inmates.

The crowd  mostly journalists  gathered on the Caledonian Road at 2.30 pm. Howard League chief executive Frances Crook explained that we had assembled “to celebrate books, to celebrate literature”. A parade of worthies proceeded to read snatches of poetry in a show of defiance against the government. Headliner Carol Anne Duffy, the poet laureate, was a disappointment; her words did not exactly ring above the noise of the street and the clack of massed camera shutters. In fact, little of the verse soared, even in the mouths of those reading Wordsworth and Shelly. But Samuel West’s thunderous performance of a Mark Hurst ditty called “50 Shades of Grayling” at least had the virtue of being funny: “Less likely to give the nonces a shankin’ if your missus sends you the new Ian Rankin”.

The arguments voiced were straightforward but powerful. Books are a right, a tool for self-improvement. A. L. Kennedy spoke eloquently of her time spent working in an unnamed prison, where a weekly writers’ group had helped stave off madness. She called books “spiritual food”. They preserve minds in institutions that work to destroy them, especially when they fall into the hands of private companies.

Shutters clacked faster when actress Vanessa Redgrave took centre stage. She read a poem of her own and a verse of “Imagine” by John Lennon. Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights campaign group Liberty, called Grayling a “spiteful and disgusting” man through a loudhailer.

The activists took it for granted that righteousness was on their side, but some residents of Islington disagreed. “They don’t deserve it”, shouted a man in a white van.

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Crook brought proceedings to a close after thirty minutes. The crowd had been slowly closing around her all afternoon, prompting some of the photographers and camera operators to exchange words as they jostled for space. When dismissed, the journalists broke rank and pushed towards the speakers for comment.

The Howard League wants to force a government u-turn. Grayling says that won’t happen. But the longer his prison book ban stays in the news, the more isolated the minister will become.