Coffee House

Take it from an ex-con — the outrage over prison books is misplaced

25 March 2014

7:02 PM

25 March 2014

7:02 PM

When I was doing my time in HMP Standford Hill, a strange pair of heavily perfumed Korans and Bibles were delivered to one inmate, ostensibly to help him with his ‘studies in comparative religion’. As intended, the perfume threw the sniffer dogs off the scent. But a suspicious prison officer found a significant quantity of heroin stuck between the pages of these holy books. This was an example of ‘parcelling it,’ con-speak for getting drugs into jails.

So Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, has a point now that he is trying to restrict the supply of books into prisons. But not much of a point: such examples are real but rare. They have little to do with the current controversy, which was never designed to be either a crackdown on crack or an attack on prisoners’ rights to receive books. It is a limited effort to make life stricter on the inside and to look tougher from the outside. Much ado about nothing really, except that it has brought into play the cock-up theory of history – as always a more potent force than the conspiracy theory.

I will bet that no-one in government ever thought of the possibility that their minor changes to the regime could bring about a major backlash of protest about banning books for prisoners. Not for the first time officialdom has been outwitted by pressure groups. Will the media rumpus subside when the full story becomes understood? Or will it grow noisier, resurrecting the ‘nasty party’ image for the Conservatives? This may be a close call, a battle of facts versus perceptions.

The facts are mostly on the government’s side. There is no ban on books – prisoners are entitled to keep up to twelve volumes in their cells. They can take out any book from the prison library and order more from the National Library Service. This is an excellent arrangement. During my seven months inside, I ordered over 50 library books. Most arrived within three to four days.

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Also easily available to prisoners are a wide range of educational courses (complete with books!); computer courses including full access to Google, and literacy courses such as those run by the Shannon Trust for the 20 per cent or more inmates who have reading difficulties. It is also easy to borrow improving books from the chapel or unimproving books from fellow prisoners, who often specialise in lending porn magazines! For high brows or low brows there is no shortage of reading material behind bars.

So why the fuss? Last October Chris Grayling introduced a revised incentives and privileges scheme into the system. This curtailed some television viewing, shortened the hours in which prisoners could wear their own clothes, and brought in other minor restrictions. This was pretty much a cosmetic exercise, a sop to right-wing critics who imagine that prisons are holiday camps. Most inmates barely noticed the changes, which is why no-one has complained much about them for over six months.

But one of the new restrictions is a ban on prisoners receiving parcels from outside. This was ostensibly a move to clamp down on books used to smuggle drugs, but is easily misrepresented. As a result of this self-inflicted wound, Mr Grayling now has a problem on his hands. He is taking on the massed lobbies of authors, writers, educators, prison reformers, social workers and all right thinking rehabilitationists who believe that books are a good influence on prisoners. These seasoned campaigners are unlikely to go quietly.

The irony of all this fuss is that Chris Grayling’s real motive in tightening the incentives and privileges scheme was to soften up his backbenchers in order to get an easy passage for his rehabilitation legislation. He wanted to look tough in order to deliver tenderness. By a country mile his Transforming Rehabilitation agenda is the most important reform for years in any government’s Criminal Justice Programme. Although it disgruntles the Probation Service, it offers the real prospect of bringing many more charities, mentoring organisations and management companies into the front line of rehabilitation. This privatisation could be a major breakthrough in the battle to reduce the depressingly high reoffending rates.

But just when this rehabilitation revolution is gathering momentum, a spoke has been thrust into its wheels by this cooked-up controversy over book parcels for prisoners. What a pointless distraction. Since Grayling is usually a supple rather than stubborn operator, I expect him to find a way of beating an elegant retreat for this skirmish.

Jonathan Aitken is a former Conservative cabinet minister

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Show comments
  • pollik

    From an interview with Grayling by the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/mar/25/minister-rules-out-rethink-ban-sending-books-prisoners

    “Grayling, however, defended the new measures as the kind of changes the
    public wanted to see – “a regime that is more Spartan unless you do the
    right thing”.”

    Less to do with drugs than to do with a right wing ideology.

    I assume Aitken just saw this as an opportunity to promote himself now that he is “interesting” with prison record.

  • Andrew_S_Hatton

    Pretty right about the books but wrong about the probation reform.

    It would formalise the involvement in charities – which began before probation was legislated for – even the first probation officers were charity workers, and charities and volunteers have always been involved with probation – I could not remember all I engaged with over a nearly thirty year probation career – it would be a VERY long list – some tiny charities, some massive.

    I worked in probation for nearly 30 years and am in touch with what is going on as the outsourcing plans struggle to be coherent. Already, rather than work in such a damaged system many probation staff have resigned – check the recruitment ads.

    The London Branch Officers of probation union Napo reckon the plans are at breaking point – one wonders whether in writing this Aitken is trying to aid his old friends rather than be accurate in every detail?

    https://www.facebook.com/napoukglb/posts/1475449719334106?stream_ref=1

  • Guest

    The compounding issue here is that there have been large
    cuts to NOMS and prison budgets in general, as well as to local councils
    which can fund the libraries.

    There
    is a lack of staff to escortprisoners to prison libraries to get books,
    books are in short supply and the libraries are not being re-stocked.

    Stopping
    prisoners receiving books is a direct obstacle to rehabilitation,
    developing and indeed occupying the mind whilst serving time. Given the
    prison system is based on compliance of the prisoners, this is going to
    result in even
    more unused negative energy.

    Also, the ban
    includes other items,such as sending in basics such as clean underwear –
    this also directly results in prisoners wearing the same basics for
    days on end, with no-one to escort them to prison libraries for an
    outlet.

    Typical headline grabbing actions that do not translate into any helpful
    results, least of all a chance at offender rehabilitation.

    Also,
    as to the question as to why no one-one complained 6 month’s ago, you
    won’t here any direct complaints from prisoners in the public domain.

  • rashguard

    The compounding issue here is that there have been large
    cuts to NOMS and prison budgets in general, as well as to local councils
    which can fund the libraries.

    There is a lack of staff to escortprisoners to prison libraries to get books, books are in short supply and the libraries are not being re-stocked.

    Stopping prisoners receiving books is a direct obstacle to rehabilitation, developing and indeed occupying the mind whilst serving time. Given the prison system is based on compliance of the prisoners, this is going to result in even
    more unused negative energy.

    Also, the ban includes other items,such as sending in basics such as clean underwear – this also directly results in prisoners wearing the same basics for days on end, with no-one to escort them to prison libraries for an outlet.

    Typical headline grabbing actions that do not translate into any helpful
    results, least of all a chance at offender rehabilitation.

    Also, as to the question as to why no one-one complained 6 month’s ago, you won’t here any direct complaints from prisoners in the public domain.

  • roger

    Surely defacing a Koran with drugs is a capital crime under Sharia?

  • Smithersjones2013

    So lets get this right. A former politician who was convicted of perjury and perverting the course of Justice and imprisoned for it expects us to take his word for something?

    MEGA IRONY ALERT!

  • swatnan

    Prisoners will try every trick in the book to pull the wool over their warders eyes. its game, a battle to them to get one over on authority. They see officers as the enemy, and not there to help them into rehab. Having said that there should be a properly stocked but vetted Prison Library with improving books..

  • Reconstruct

    The Shannon Trust sounds like an excellent initiative, and a genuine charity (rather than a 3rd State front) which can do with everyone’s support. I don’t usually do this, but here’s the relevant page:

    http://www.shannontrust.org.uk/get-involved/donate/

  • CharlietheChump

    Grayling is right and the lefties, as usual, are wrong

    • Andrew_S_Hatton

      I am no lefty – before calling Howard League and Prison Reform Trusts lefties, check the trustees down the years – even a Conservative former foreign secretary was chair of PRT!

  • scampy1

    I am sure many of the uneducated drug dealing third world rapists will be appalled by not having books with crack hidden inside?

  • artemis in france

    Grayling is generally all right. Yes, hé does sometimes try to appear harsh for effect but I think, like IDS, his mind is set on improvement and réal social justice, not the bleeding heart variety.

  • Tony_E

    The pressure groups are getting the knickers in a twist, but if the BBC hadn’t practically reported their opinion as fact this story would already be chip paper.

  • Gareth Milner

    Genuinely one of the most thought provoking and interesting pieces I have ever read on here. Well done. Books are lovely and important, but lets not forget what has actually happened here, pressure groups getting their knickers in a twist.

  • HookesLaw

    I know all about prisons. I spent years watching Porridge and all its repeats. I know prisons have libraries manned by trusies and old lags. Prisoners can get books if they want to read.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    For background, try Lord Archer`s Prison Diary books. His little stretch wasn`t entirely a waste of time. Don`t forget to write, Jeffery.

    • Colin56

      Oh please, Jeffrey, please forget to write. The world will be a better place without your appalling tripe masquerading as ‘novels’. You must have made enough money by now – how many Manets does a peer need?

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        You`ve actually read Archer`s “Prison Diary” books, Colin? If not, kindly shut it.

        • Colin56

          Actually, I did try – and got part way through the first before the realisation that the content was pure, self-serving tripe hit me and I gave up. Archer is much better at fund-raising than he is at writing books. Maybe he should stick to that.

    • Airey Belvoir

      Archer wrote about the many ingenious ways drugs get smuggled into prison, LSD under postage stamps, and cutting out a newspaper ad and pasting onto the same ad in another paper with cocaine underneath. There will always be a way.

  • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

    The transforming rehabilitation service is about destroying excellent probation trusts so the contracts can be sold off to the usual handful of large outsourcing firms, perhaps with a few charities on a percentage or two as ‘bid candy’.

    • Hexhamgeezer

      You are talking monumental male chicken.

      Incidentally, restrictions on literature (or Kindle downloading) needs to be tailored to individual prisoners, Shamefully, a close relative of mine spending time at HM’s pleasure could receive any mount of motoring magazines or specialist engineering tracts and virtually unlimited gym time. This was useful as he was the ‘ne plus ultra’ in getaway driving and ad hoc muscle/presence.

  • Andy

    Kindles. Problem solved.

    • Geoff

      They’d get nicked.

  • MalcolmRedfellow

    Yes, we bourgeois get steamed up over books.

    What about the other “luxuries” that might, just might offend. Such as new knickers, bras, underpants …

    They are also on the restricted list.

    Explain that, on the basis of your isolated example of a perfumed Quran.

    • Hexhamgeezer

      No amount of perfume should disguise the stench of a K0R@n

      • Andrew_S_Hatton

        How offensive and I see this has been supported and not removed.

        Just wait until the criminal justice system implodes – if probation reform gets beyond its 1st June start date – there will be plenty of news then – it will take Cameron like the poll tax took Thatcher I am certain – if other problems from the courts don’t get him first!

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