Saturday, 6 December 2014

Time for One More Whopper, Chris?

As the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) surveys the wreckage of Chris Grayling’s credibility following yesterday’s trouncing by the High Court of the notorious ban on books being posted in to prisoners, its latest official statements have contained a new ‘justification’ for the policy that has not hitherto been advanced. This reflects the Ministry’s tried and tested strategy of coming up with ever more creative explanations for indefensible actions after the event.

High Court: a train crash for MOJ
The latest claim is that the ban on parcels for prisoners – which included books and other literature being sent by family, friends and external organisations such as distance learning colleges – is justified on the grounds that it is designed to exclude “extremist material”. This is a new tack because until yesterday the MOJ’s official line has been that the blanket ban is necessary to prevent drugs and other contraband being smuggled into prisons. 

What these increasingly desperate claims really reveal is the fact that no-one in either the MOJ or the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) – which runs the prison system – actually has a clue as to why the revised Incentive and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme that came into effect on 1 September 2013 banned the posting in of books. That is almost certainly because the policy wonk who drew up the revision to the existing policies hadn’t got the first idea about prisons or how they function. This has been a classic case that has highlighted the massive gulf that exists between the desk jockeys down in Whitehall and prison staff, particularly governors, who actually have to run our jails on a day-to-day basis and whose hands are now almost completely tied by MOJ red tape.
Governors: hands tied by IEP

The official statement from the MOJ referring to “extremist material” has been rolled out in a desperate bid to convince the general public that the revised IEP policy was really all about public protection at a time when there is a widespread anxiety about both international and domestic terrorism. It has parallels with Mr Grayling’s equally bogus claim when giving evidence to the Parliamentary Committee on Justice that the current problem of overcrowding in prisons can all be attributed to more sex offenders being sent down following the allegations made against the late Jimmy Savile. It can’t.  

These populist manoeuvres reflect the lack of hard evidence that underpins almost anything that passes as prisons policy these days. In the case of the “extremist material” claim, it relies on ordinary folk not being aware of the fact that there is already an extensive list of prohibited literature contained in the Prison Service’s Public Protection Manual, as well as detailed provisions contained in the National Security Framework. The list already expressly bans all extremist or racist literature, along with much material that is sexually explicit. Such policies have been in place for years for reasons that are understandable.

The revised IEP scheme ban on sending in books by post has nothing whatsoever to do with extremist material. The MOJ statement is utterly deceitful and an attempt to mislead the public following the High Court’s demolition of what was a vindictive, ideologically-motivated policy that actively undermined rehabilitation through education. In fact, the restrictions have had a severely detrimental impact on one of NOMS’ own pathway objectives to reduce reoffending, namely education. For this reason alone, it was hardly surprising that the High Court has taken the view that the blanket ban was both irrational and unlawful.

Mr Justice Collins: good judgment
The actual High Court judgment by Mr Justice Collins is well worth reading in full (see here). In it, the judge dissects the IEP scheme and highlights a range of inconsistencies and realities that impact on the accessibility of books for prisoners. He makes the not unreasonable point that the limits on the weekly spends by an individual prisoner, including cash sent in by family and friends, imposes severe restrictions on the purchase of books: 

Since a prisoner will have to provide all that he or she wants from his or her earnings and the weekly private cash allowance, it is obvious that the available amount, certainly on basic and probably on standard, will not permit the purchase of many items, let alone books.

Interestingly, although Mr Justice Collins acknowledged that the libraries at HMP Send, where the prisoner making the application for judicial review is held, were good he also pointed out that the situation at other establishments was not: 

While the library at HMP Send is good and there is reasonable access, the same cannot be said of all prisons. Economies which have resulted in staffing levels being reduced have worsened the situation and financial restrictions are likely to mean that purchases of particular books which will be unlikely to appeal to prisoners other than the one requesting them will not be approved. A statement from the Prisoners Education Trust includes statements from prisoners who are studying for particular qualifications who needed to possess books. While I recognise there may be an exception for accepted educational books (subject to the 12 limit) the ability to access what is needed from family and friends is most important.

HMP Send: good libraries
The judgment also demolished the security argument as being the key issue. As Mr Justice Collins observed in paragraph 27: “the reason given for the restriction on books is the IEP, not security which could have been included.” In other words, at a late stage the MOJ was trying to introduce new justifications for its policies that weren’t originally being argued. Judges generally don’t like that sort of thing. It smacks of desperation by a defendant when the outcome of the case is looking grim.

When it comes to the infamous “12 book limit” that a prisoner could have in possession at any one time – including books borrowed from the prison library – by the time the High Court judgment had been handed down the MOJ had done a timely U-turn by removing this arbitrary restriction. However, Mr Justice Collins was still pretty scathing in his comments about this particular rule and its impact on prisoners’ access to books.

Another important issue raised was the fact that in most prisons in England and Wales, perhaps all, the only approved supplier that prisoners can order from (via the prison which usually adds on an administrative fee of 50p per item), is While sourcing books from a single approved supplier might be justified on the grounds of security, there is a wider question of whether Amazon – which is currently facing an inquiry into its corporate tax affairs across the European Union – is an appropriate holder of this state monopoly (see BBC story: Amazon faces European Union tax avoidance investigation). Of course, it’s also important to note that Amazon has robustly denied any wrongdoing and the EU probe is still ongoing.

Plenty of books, but how about access?
However, the fatal flaw in the MOJ’s defence of its IEP policy on books was the fact that ministers have repeatedly “accepted the importance of books for prisoners and their rehabilitation” while imposing policies that, in their actual application, do impose severe restrictions on prisoners’ access to books, particularly at a time when staff shortages and budgetary restraints are having a very negative impact on prison libraries. A library that is all but inaccessible to cons isn’t really offering much of a service, a point that this blog has been arguing for many months.

Mr Justice Collins’ sensible and balanced judgment at the conclusion of this High Court case is one of the main reasons that Mr Grayling and his ilk hate and despise the whole process of judicial review. That is why the coalition government is working so hard to restrict access to justice for both ordinary people and campaigning organisations, as well as vastly increasing the costs so that judicial scrutiny of bizarre or unlawful decisions will be beyond the means of all but the wealthy.

All authoritarian regimes start by targeting access to justice because no one in power likes having their decisions questioned or challenged. In essence, it’s an ideological battle over judicial scrutiny of policies and decisions that can have a profound impact on the lives of millions of ordinary people, most of whom lack the financial resources to launch legal action. It’s worth noting in this case that the prisoner who brought this action, Dr Barbara Gordon-Jones, was being represented on a pro bono basis – including a legal team that featured a QC. While these lawyers are to be commended for their unpaid efforts, this is really not how justice should be administered in a mature democracy.

Education: reduces reoffending
Doubtless the outcome of the judicial review has not been well received in the MOJ, especially given the key role that has been played by prison reform campaigners such as the Howard League for Penal Reform in raising public awareness of the situation. Mr Grayling has repeatedly demonstrated his intense dislike for this organisation. He previously blocked access to prisoners (both serving and on released on licence) for researchers from the Howard League’s Commission investigating sexual activities in prison, including rape and sexual assaults of prisoners (see my blog post here). 

Team Grayling has waged a relentless campaign against anyone who presumes to criticise its hellish and vindictive vision of prison, even when these draconian policies directly undermine rehabilitation and the Prison Service's own declared mission to reduce reoffending. Although the latest train crash in the High Court will be an embarrassment for ‘Crisis’ Chris, it isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last. The whole issue of the partial privatisation of the probation system is next on the High Court’s agenda.

Jeremy Thorpe: acquitted
In a week that saw the death of former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, I think I can be allowed a famous quote from his criminal trial in 1979 on charges of conspiracy to murder – of which he was acquitted. The late Mr Justice Cantley was presiding and former MP Peter Bessell was in the witness box giving evidence for the prosecution. It was almost lunchtime and the barrister engaged in cross-examination enquired whether the court should rise. Very unimpressed by Mr Bessell’s testimony, Mr Justice Cantley uttered the immortal words: “I think we have time for one more whopper”.  

One can only speculate how the MOJ would have faired at that judge’s hands. Banning the posting in of books because of drugs, then other types of contraband… and now the latest excuse is to keep out extremist material. Hmmm... Time for one more whopper, Chris?


  1. Whilst I'm glad this unfair policy has been overturned by the High Court is it only me that sees the irony in the fact that it was an arsonist who successfully challenged it?

    1. Thanks for your comment... I must admit that it did cross my mind!

  2. I do wonder why the likes of MOJ expect us to believe their reasoning for some decisions. It seems clear to me that the only reason to ban parcels (containing any item) was to reduce the post room staff and save a few quid.

    Drugs have always found their was into prisons. I'd imagine more through visits or thrown over the wall than smuggled through the post. Even since the ban was implemented a year ago HMIPs most recent reports show drugs are readily available on the wings.

    It seems this cost-cutting exercise has backfired as it's led to a costly case in the High Court just to have the ban overturned.

    My concern now is that, knowing the speed of any progress in prisons, it will take an age for the ban to be actually lifted. PSIs can be quickly amended and issued but not so quickly implemented. I know only too well how rules in PSIs are ignored, how long will it be before the flow of books into prisons actually starts?

    1. Thanks for your comments. In fact, security and reception still have to deal with all the normal letter mail, as well as orders from Amazon (for books) and Argos (for other items), so this continues anyway. Even the POA made clear that the ban on posting books had nothing to do with security issues.

      Most drugs either come into prisons via visits or are smuggled by staff (uniformed or civilian). Some parcels do come over the wall, but it is fairly uncommon as the hit rate is pretty low. Staff shortages are definitely having an impact on the easy availability of drugs and other contraband,

      Probably the way forward is for a system similar to that operated in 2012 in one of the Cat-Bs I was in. There you submitted an application with a list of book titles. Once these had been approved you let your family or friends know and the books could be sent in and entered on your property card.

      Another system is to permit family and friends to order books online from approved suppliers (Amazon etc) and then these are delivered directly to the prison in sealed wraps. This generally satisfies the security issues. I used to do this myself for a prisoner on death row in the USA.

      With regard to updating the PSI, I think it could be relatively quick. The blanket ban on steel stringed guitars went almost overnight, as has the 12 book limit. NOMS will just send out a circular to governors and they will then have local discretion on allowing books to be posted in or ordered by family and friends.

    2. I have been told books can be sent in from the 1st February

    3. Thanks for your comment. I've heard this too. However, it still isn't clear to me whether this will mean that books can be sent in directly to prisoners from their family, friends or outside organisations - or whether there will be an insistence on books being ordered via and delivered in sealed wraps directly from the supplier on security grounds.

      When I was inside, only one prison (a Cat-B local) actually permitted books to come in from home and this was nearly two years before PSI 30/2013 came into effect. Two other prisons allowed people to order books for you, but only for direct commercial delivery. This made it almost impossible to order second hand books or out of print titles. As always, the devil will be in the detail, so I'm not holding my breath yet!

  3. I have also been wondering if prison staff will now find creative ways to stop books getting through. Perhaps we could all send a book to someone, and report back here when we know it's arrived.

    I hope the press will soon be full of pictures of delighted prisoners jumping in the air, like on A level results day.


    1. Thanks for your comments, Richard. That will remain to be seen, but in my experience staff tend to prefer it if cons are reading books or watching TV as it makes for a much quieter life, especially when wing staff are in short supply!

      I think the main benefits will be for prisoners studying via distance learning (especially the lifting of the daft 12 book limit) when the prison library can't supply required textbooks, as well as those who have specialised interests not covered in general library collections, such as foreign language books or technical works.

  4. Thanks for another excellent blog post, Alex. And thanks for not, in this post anyway, repeating the line that all prison libraries are inadequate. Some are - and this comes up in the inspection reports - but many are great and real sanctuaries for prisoners. Sadly, 'new ways of working' has made access much harder. Perhaps access, a supposed legal right, will be Frances Crooks' next campaign.


    1. Thanks for your comments, David. I think that there are definitely some excellent prison libraries and librarians. As I mentioned in one of my early posts on 8 July: "The library at my D-cat was well-run and the civilian librarian who ran it still ranks as one of the most decent human beings I encountered while I was inside. He treated everyone - staff and prisoner alike - as a customer of equal worth and potential. And that really means something in prison, particularly for lifers and long-termers who may have spent the last 20 years being treated like scum.

      This library was almost always packed (unless there was a football match on the games field in the good weather). Prisoners' behaviour was impeccable: no smoking in the stacks, no chewing gum, no vandalism. I always think that one of the main arguments in favour of open prisons is that they offer a chance for inmates who have served long sentences to acclimatise back to 'normality' before actually being released and being treated as a customer, rather than as a con, is an important part of the 'decompression' process. It's good practice ahead of returning to the real world beyond the gate."

      There was also a reasonable library at one Cat-C prison I was at. However, access was the main problem. Once a month for 20 minutes sometimes.
      However, at one Cat-B local the library was a disgrace, with only a couple of prisoners allowed in at a time... meaning an hour's wait sometimes just to change a book.

      Like exercise, library access is respected on paper but then falls victim to 'operational constraints' - ie staff shortages. Until this issue is addressed, I fear library access will remain at risk in many establishments.

    2. Thanks, Alex. How did I miss the July 8 post?! Glad to hear that one was a success. Yes, absolutely agree about the 'decompression process'. In fact I know some prisoners of one Cat D visit the local library on their time out which is a perfect result all round. Aside from the whole access nightmare there really is no reason why any of the libraries shouldn't be well stocked and as friendly as the one you mention.

      cheers - and keep going with excellent blog


    3. Thanks for your comments, David. I definitely think that one of the main benefits of the Cat-Ds is to begin that slow - and often painful - process of acclimatisation back into the real world, particularly for lifers and those prisoners who've served many years in closed conditions.

      I suspect that I know which Cat-D you mention above! Anyway, thanks for the encouragement.

  5. You talk of policies developed by "policy wonks" with no knowledge of how prisons are run. That is not how policy development in NOMS works. All operational policies are signed off by senior staff with operational management experience, so the notion that elements of the IEP policy were written by people who had no idea what the impact would be is just not accurate

    1. Thanks for your contribution. I'd be interested in following this issue up since you seem to have personal knowledge of the NOMS policy development process. My specific interest lies in how the revised IEP policy - which has been very strongly criticised by the PGA and by a number of governors I've met personally - managed to gain approval by NOMS. My impression - again from speaking to various governor grades - is that this was a purely political policy imposed for ideological reasons by the MOJ.

      Specific concerns raised by a number of these governors appear to have been ignored, particularly regarding aspects of the IEP policy that have impacted very negatively on Cat-D establishments. Indeed, I'm informed that a point came when NOMS informed governors that no further representations would be passed on to the MOJ because decisions had already been taken and the matter was closed.

      If the senior staff to whom you refer in your comment do have operational management experience, then the question must be raised as to why these wide ranging concerns - and the consequent negative impacts, such as the situation with access to books - weren't flagged up at a political level. Or, if they were, why PSI 30/2013 was issued without addressing these concerns. As things stand this appears to suggest that political decisions were implemented regardless of the potential consequences.

      Any comments on this would be very welcome and would make a significant contribution to this discussion.

    2. The key word in "operational management experience" is "management" - in criminal justice agencies these days you don't get promotion for being good at your job and delivering a good service, you get promotion for slavish adherence to targets sent down from on high, regardless of whether that represents good service. Senior managers have very little knowledge of how things actually work on the front line.

    3. Alex - in response to your comment (which followed mine at 22:59 yesterday). The reality is that NOMS is subject to the political direction of Ministers. The senior operational staff who will have worked on the IEP policy are still civil servants and their duty is to implement the policy of the elected Government. They will have drafted the best policy the could, whilst meeting the political objectives of Ministers. They may also have advised Ministers that their policy would have negative consequences. But they are just civil servants - they advise, they do not decide. Whether one likes it or not, in our system of government, Ministers take advice and make decisions. Even with the best advice in the world, sometimes the decisions they take will be wrong and contrary to advice, but such is the nature of our democracy.

      I shan't response to anon at 16:52 as his or her comments are trite

    4. Thanks for your comments. I take your point about the distinction between civil service advice and political policies and, in essence, that seems to be the key problem. Perhaps in my blog post I could have expressed that better. However, I must admit that early on in my former career (when I was a Parliamentary researcher) and from time to time afterwards, I did deal with senior civil servants and policy advisors on a fairly regular basis and was sometimes shocked by what seemed to be their woefully inadequate grasp of what was really going on in the world outside. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office was the worst, in my own experience!

      I suppose in some respects this actually makes Mr Grayling and his political team even more responsible for the serious damage being inflicted across the criminal justice system. When politicians act purely on the basis of ideology, rather than making use of evidence-based advice, then they have to take full responsibility for the consequences, rather than attempting to pass the blame on to others.

    5. I can't agree more with the last two posts. Alex and Anon (19:36) you've both hit the nail on the head. Despite the best recommendations of those who actually know the real world situation it's politics dictating policy rather than common sense and reality.

      Grayling lacks any legal background and will no doubt just seek Daily Mail headlines to grab a few more votes in May. In the meantime men are needlessly dying in our prisons.

      Cash for questions is one thing but deaths for votes?

    6. Thanks for your contribution. Despite the fictitious 'Yes, Minister' view of how politics work, I'm afraid that so-called 'conviction politicians' prefer to pursue their own ideological vision, rather than allowing real life experience to impact on their policies.

      Michael Howard was much the same at the Home Office, as was David Blunkett. Both have left, in their own ways, a legacy of deep damage on our prisons.

      Shifting the balance from sending people to prison as a punishment through the deprivation of liberty, accompanied by appropriate rehabilitation, to sending people to prison for further punishment and humiliation has been an entirely negative process. If there was any credible evidence that this approach actually reduced reoffending, then it might be defensible. However, even the MOJ's own figures for reoffending make it clear that this strategy has failed and is continuing to fail. Based on measurable outcomes alone, Team Grayling has failed.

  6. The book ban was ridiculous especially for the reasons Grayling gave i.e. to stop contraband getting into prisons. In the 4 prisons I was in, in the 3 closed ones the contraband didn't come in via parcels, visitors etc but by the staff for the most part with a small bit getting in from people who'd been out on ROTL.

    1. Thanks for your comments. To be honest, I don't think Grayling and his team even gave a thought about books. The aim of the new policy to was ban anything being sent in to prisoners; books were just 'collateral damage' - although the impact on education, distance learning etc was never really considered.

      Parcels have never really been a source of contraband. Bent staff are responsible for much of the smuggling in closed nicks, especially drugs, either due to greed or blackmail. A fair amount of drugs and SIM cards do come in during initial reception, but not enough to supply the ever rising demand on the wings.