Earlier this month, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling told charities that they did far too much campaigning and should instead concentrate on delivering services to the needy. In a wonderful riposte to his authoritarian bluster, the Howard League has managed to mobilise the entire literary establishment against the petty restrictions on prisoners’ contact with the outside world which he introduced at the end of last year. It’s an exemplary campaign- an unarguable message (even the most punitive baulk at banning books), disseminated via social media and backed by anything but the usual suspects.
Grayling may feel unfairly done by in the media coverage but the fact that
there is no specific prohibition on books but rather on all parcels makes the impact
worse not better. His argument that parcels cannot be checked for contraband is
feeble -it’s done for pre-trial prisoners, why not for the sentenced? His claims
that reading needs are met by libraries are dishonest. The three most recent
Inspection reports have found insufficient easy read materials at Kirkham, very
low use of the library at Liverpool, and limited access at Belmarsh.
His harsher system of incentives was trailed in the Daily Mail last year as the
introduction of Spartan prisons. Since the Spartans believed in feeding their young
men so they had a taste of not having enough, Grayling will no doubt have been
pleased that according to today’s Inspection report, prisoners at Liverpool
complained about the inadequate size of food portions. While Jonathan Aitken may
think that Grayling is actually progressive and that tougher prisons are the
price he has to pay to get hard-line backbenchers to support his rehabilitation
revolution, there is more than enough evidence of his illiberal
world view. His wish to restrict judicial review because it undermines parliament
to defy the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human rights are two examples.
What would Hugo Grotius have made of him? After all the founder of
international law escaped from prison in a chest that brought his books in.
Fortunately there are many who don’t share Grayling’s ideology, preferring the
view that people go to prison as a punishment not for a punishment. Whether or not the Howard League force
Grayling to amend his small minded privileges scheme, they have succeeded in bringing
to light some of the hidden realities of life behind bars. It goes to show that
charities should do more campaigning not less.