A serial arsonist with a doctorate in English literature and a taste for the writings of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius has overturned the government’s ban on sending books to prisoners in UK jails.
Following a campaign backed by leading literary figures, the ban was declared unlawful in the High Court on Friday, with the judge describing the government’s defence of the measure as “misleading”. Mr Justice Collins saw “no good reason” for the ban, saying that “to refer to them [books] as a privilege is strange”.
Barbara Gordon-Jones, who is serving a life sentence at Send prison in Surrey, brought the case after Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, banned prisoners from receiving goods sent by family and friends in November last year. The restrictions were brought in partly to stop drugs getting into jails but also, as Mr Grayling put it at the time, as a way of “making them work towards their rehabilitation”.
Last year’s ban on being sent goods restricted prisoners to obtaining what they could purchase with money earned in prison. The judge said this “will not permit the purchase of many items, let alone books”.
The amount prisoners can spend — made up of money sent in and cash earned in jail — ranges from a “basic” £4 a week to an “enhanced” £22.50.
Mr Grayling said in March that prisoners could still order in books from websites such as Amazon via the prison shop, a contention the judge said was “misleading” because of the limit on prisoners’ spending.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said she “was very glad that common sense has now prevailed in time for Christmas”. Her organisation had campaigned against the rule change, winning support from Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate, as well as Alan Bennett, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Philip Pullman, Jeffrey Archer, Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin, Nick Hornby and Caitlin Moran.
“We now call on the Ministry of Justice to relax the ban on sending in parcels completely so that prisoners can receive essentials such as underwear and small gifts from their children,” said Ms Crook.
The prisoner’s solicitors, Lound Mulrenan Jefferies, said: “Reading is a right and not a privilege, to be encouraged and not restricted.” The firm and a team of barristers led by Jenni Richards QC took on the case pro bono after Gordon-Jones was denied legal aid.
Gordon-Jones, 56, was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and was jailed after torching a number of homes and cars. She said she loved books and was reading works by Alan Bennett, Monica Ali and Marcus Aurelius, famous for his Meditations.
She was staying in a prison with one of the best libraries, the judge said, but the “books she wishes to read are often . . . not normally required by fellow prisoners”. About half the prison population of England and Wales has a reading age of 11 or below.
The prison service described the judgment as “surprising”, adding that it was considering how best to implement it. “However, we are clear that we will not do anything that would create a new conduit for smuggling drugs and extremist materials into our prisons,” it added.
Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, said the ban “was always an absurd policy”, while Denis MacShane, the former Labour MP who was jailed for six months for expenses fraud, said the ruling was “a modest win for common sense”. Mr MacShane said a suitcase of books was confiscated from him when he was sent to Belmarsh prison, London, last Christmas.
"Chris Grayling seems to think that being unpleasant to prisoners is good for society. On the contrary, it makes rehabilitation much more difficult," he said.
The ban on books being posted to inmates was part of a broader crackdown on prisoners’ privileges that has intensified pressures on prison staff. Violent assaults by prisoners have risen 23 per cent in a year and suicides are at a six-year high, while the number of prison staff has been cut by a third.