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Prisoners will be able to receive books as gifts direct from relatives and friends rather than being restricted to ordering new volumes from four approved retailers, following a relaxation of the rules by justice secretary Michael Gove.

Mr Gove, who was appointed to his role in the Ministry of Justice after the election, has lost little time in overturning limits on prison reading put in place by his predecessor, fellow Conservative Chris Grayling. The new secretary of state has also abolished the restriction stating that inmates should only be allowed to keep 12 books in their cell without specific permission from the prison governor.

The changes brought in two years ago by Mr Grayling — which banned inmates from receiving parcels of books unless there were “exceptional circumstances” — caused uproar among justice campaigners, and drew criticism from established authors including JK Rowling, Ian McEwan and Philip Pullman.

Following a lengthy legal challenge by a prisoner, a High Court ruling in December found that restricting prisoners’ access to books was unlawful. Restrictions were subsequently eased to allow people to buy new books for prisoners through four retailers: Blackwell’s, Foyles, Waterstones or WH Smith. But the changes announced on Sunday will allow friends, relatives and charities to send parcels of books directly to inmates without having to buy them through specified sellers.

Explaining the decision — which will come into force from September 1 — Mr Gove said there were more than 80,000 people in custody in England and Wales, and the “most important thing” to do once they were in prison was make sure they were able to access the literacy and numeracy skills needed for success in work.

“One of the big influences on my thinking on social policy is Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute,” the justice secretary said. “He believes that we should see all human beings as assets not liabilities. I agree. Every individual has something to offer, every one of us can earn respect. People who are currently languishing in prison are potential assets to society. They could be productive and contribute. If we look at them only as problems to be contained we miss the opportunity to transform their lives and to save ourselves and our society both money and pain”.

“All of us suffer when people leave prison and then reoffend, all of us benefit when individuals are redeemed,” Mr Gove added.

Governors will retain discretion to withhold any books that they deem inappropriate, not conducive to rehabilitation, or contrary to the safe running of the prison. All packages of books will be subject to full security checks, including using sniffer dogs and scanning technology, before they are passed on to prisoners.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, welcomed the announcement.

“It is particularly welcome to hear the secretary of state describe prisoners as assets and not liabilities,” she said. “Prisoners are indeed people who can have positive futures and who can contribute to society. Relaxing access to books as tools of education and change is just one of the ways we can ensure that the justice system works with prisoners, rather than against them.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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