What’s The Truth About The “Book Ban” In Prisons?

It’s a bit more complex than you think.

1. Yesterday Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform wrote a piece for politics.co.uk, in which she claimed:

New rules introduced by the justice secretary ban anyone sending in books to prisoners. From now on, any man, woman or child in prison will not be able to receive a book from outside. This is part of an increasingly irrational punishment regime orchestrated by Chris Grayling that grabs headlines but restricts education or rehabilitation.

The rules governing possessions of prisoners are arcane and not consistently applied by every prison. These new restrictions relate to a downgrading of the system of rewards and punishments, ostensibly designed to encourage prisoners to comply with prison rules. Yet the ban on receiving books is a blanket decision, so no matter how compliant and well behaved you are, no prisoner will be allowed to receive books from the outside.

2. The piece provoked a furious reaction on social media.

The government has banned prisoners from receiving books. WHAT? I mean actually WHAT!? http://t.co/vp6j6BYIzM

— Mark Ferguson (@Markfergusonuk)

7. Inevitably, an online petition was set up. And more furious blogs followed.

8. The guidelines are set out in this document, published at the end of last year.


9. The rules which prevent friends and families sending books in are found in section 10.4.

To ensure that the Incentive Earned Privileges scheme is not undermined the general presumption will be that items for prisoners will not be handed in or sent in by their friends or families unless there are exceptional circumstances.

Governors have discretion to determine what constitutes exceptional circumstances; this could include for example disability/health aids or an artefact for religious observance, stamped-addressed envelopes so as to facilitate a prisoner’s ability to communicate or where there is a need to replace clothing due to restricted access to laundry facilities.

10. But the reason for these rules is that books are a part of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme, a way of rewarding prisoners for good behaviour.

Specialist products including music CDs, DVDs, an extended range of products suitable for vegans, an extended range of religious items, electronic games, electronic equipment, clothing, footwear, books, mother and baby requirements, and cosmetics may, at the discretion of the establishment and subject to the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme, be purchased by prisoners for their own use, through catalogue suppliers.

11. In fact books aren’t the only thing the scheme offers. Even a video games console can be obtained as long as it doesn’t have an internet connection.

Alan White / BuzzFeed

Alan White / BuzzFeed


The full list can be seen on page 49 here.

12. Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright has now issued a statement denying Crook’s claims:

The notion we are banning books in prisons is complete nonsense. All prisoners can have up to 12 books in their cells at any one time, and all prisoners have access to the prison library.

Under the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, if prisoners engage with their rehabilitation and comply with the regime they can have greater access to funds to buy items including books.

BuzzFeed has asked the Ministry of Justice for more details on the books that are available, whether cuts are impacting library services, as well as whether it’s possible to send prisoners books via a postal retailer like Amazon.

14. Updated: March 24, 3.45 p.m. GMT:

BuzzFeed understands that British prisons are legally obliged to provide libraries. Governmental sources are claiming that they can find no evidence of cuts to the library budget.

They also tell us prisoners are not able to order books through Amazon, but they can request for them to be ordered: the prison governor will have discretion over that so they can control the content coming into the prisons.

15. Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform has also offered a new statement:

“If the Ministry of Justice allows prisoners to be sent credit from outside, then why on earth would they ban friends and family from sending in books and insist instead that prisoners must buy the books themselves?

“The reality is that most prisoners on an ‘entry’ or ‘standard’ regime will be allowed no more than £10 or £15.50 a week, which means that almost all a prisoner’s weekly allowance would be spent on just one title. Even the most ardent book lovers tend not to spend all of their weekly wage on what they read.

“Over the last year, because of shrinking prison budgets, staff cuts and increasing numbers, prisoners have been spending even longer in their cells without access to facilities such as libraries.

“It is common for prisoners to spend 20 hours a day in their cells during the week. At weekends they can be cooped up from Friday lunchtime until Monday morning. Conditions have deteriorated so much in recent months that this has become a major concern.

“In those circumstances it is the little things that make a difference. Being able to read a book is a lifeline and a way of nourishing the mind.

“As families and friends are now forbidden from sending basic items into prison, prisoners are sitting in stinking cells, wearing dirty clothes, with nothing to do and not even a book to read. We urge the government to reconsider this draconian measure.”

16. Updated: March 24, 7.25 p.m. GMT: Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has now responded on politics.co.uk.

Wilfully stoking up misconceptions about what were are doing in prisons, and what we are trying to achieve with those changes – fewer criminals going round and round the system, trailing fewer victims in their wake – doesn’t help anyone, least of all those whose offending behaviour it is that we are trying to stop.

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Alan White is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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