Banning prisoners from receiving books in prison is just one of a number of mean and petty rules introduced by the secretary of state for justice that add to the stress and strain of imprisonment, while doing nothing to promote rehabilitation and personal responsibility. The rules were introduced in November 2013 as part of the government’s changes to the ‘incentives and earned privileges’ (IEP) scheme. Authors, prison reformers and commentators from across the political spectrum have expressed concern about the impact of the new rules on prisoners and their families.
Under the rules, prisoners can be sent a one-off parcel at the start of their sentence but then are forbidden from receiving any items in the post other than letters and cards unless there are exceptional circumstances. Families are prevented from sending in books and other basic items such as paper or pens to help people in prison with their education and learning and keeping in touch with their friends and families. They are also prevented from sending additional warm clothes and underwear to the prison. Instead people in prison are now forced to pay for these items out of their meagre prison wages to private companies who make a profit from selling goods to prisoners.
Prison governors’ discretion is limited under the rules but it is up to individual governors to decide what counts as exceptional. Items allowed could include disability or health aids, items needed for religious observance, stamped addressed envelopes or replacement clothes where there is limited or restricted access to the laundry.
While concerns about security are understandable and it is important to have consistent policies across the prison estate, it is also vital that prison policies do not undermine the importance of family contact and rehabilitation or the safe and decent treatment of people in prison. Since the introduction of the scheme in November, the Prison Reform Trust’s advice and information service has responded to many prisoners concerned about its impact on them and their families. The Prison Reform Trust has been contacted by women prisoners who cannot get hold of enough clean underwear to keep them hygienic during their period. The Ministry of Justice has introduced a fixed limit to the number of items of underwear that men and women may have in their cells, as well as placing restrictions on other items of clothing.
The advice team has also been contacted by many elderly and disabled prisoners who are unable to work and cannot earn enough money to pay for items such as stationery or things to keep them occupied during the long periods of time they are locked in their cells. Previously the families of these prisoners could have sent them a pack of cards, board games, books or magazines to give them something to do. Prisoners are now forced to pay for these items or obtain them from under-resourced prison libraries. Rates of pay for those working average around £10 a week and can be as little as £2.50 a week for a prisoner who is unable to work – out of which they must pay for phone calls, TV rental, stationery, reading material and any additional food, clothes and toiletries they may need. It costs 20p a minute to call a mobile from a prison phone during the week; and 9p a minute to phone a landline.
The advice team has also heard from prisoners working outside in the community on release on temporary licence, but who are not able to get hold of enough clothes to keep them warm during the cold winter weather. One woman prisoner said: ‘I have a thick padded jacket, which is brown and I am being told this will no longer be allowed. I cannot afford to buy a new coat as I only earn £12 a week as it is. This is not just me but other women who go out to work. Some work in London and will have the same clothes day in and out. Surely if we are working towards and maintaining all our goals we are entitled to a bit of leeway?’
It is hard to see how these small-minded restrictions fit with the secretary of state for justice’s wider aims to transform rehabilitation. An arbitrary ban on prisoners receiving books and other basic items will do nothing to promote good behaviour in prisons and is no way to help people to lead a law-abiding life.
Mark Day is head of policy and communications at the Prison Reform Trust
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