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Banning books isn’t the only cruel and unnecessary punishment

AT THE end of last year reforms to the Incentive and Earned Privileges (IEP) policy in prisons in England and Wales were brought into force. The new Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, claimed the existing policy needed a thorough overhaul and he was probably right: it hadn’t been looked at for more than a decade. On November 1, 2013, the government website issued a bland statement with an overview of changes, including banning Certificate 18 films; turning off televisions during periods of work; and removing TV completely from prisoners who ‘misbehave’. Buried in a footnote to the press release is a link to the full IEP policy; a 66-page document which details the ‘incentives’ available to prisoners as they move through a complicated system with four tiers: Basic, Entry, Standard and Enhanced.

Convicted prisoners begin on Entry level, can be dropped down to Basic if they don’t follow the rules, and can move up to Standard and Enhanced if they demonstrate sufficient commitment to rehabilitation. With a mere 14-day period on Entry before being assessed, in theory it isn’t long before a convicted prisoner can move up to Standard. There they can wear their own clothes, receive an enhanced weekly allowance (£15.50 a week instead of £10.00), and enjoy extra time out of their cell.

It sounds great, in principle. A clearly defined, reward-based path, taking a prisoner from conviction to release. But the list of incentives is disturbingly short, and nowhere does it include that most sought-after of rewards – a parcel from home. Even an ‘Enhanced’ prisoner, who has worked to support his or her own rehabilitation, has proved his contribution to the prison ‘community’ by supporting an in-house buddy scheme, and kept his or her nose clean for the weeks taken to progress through the system, isn’t entitled to a care package from home. Following conviction, each prisoner may receive a one-off parcel of clothing: thereafter, they are limited to what they can buy with their weekly allowance, and what is available to them through the prison shop. A single package of clothing might be sufficient for an offender on a short sentence, but a ten-stretch for GBH? How can inmates be encouraged to have respect for themselves and for others, when they are forced to wear clothing that is falling apart?

It’s not just clothing that is restricted, and this week Frances Crook has expressed her outrage that prisoners are forbidden from receiving books from family and friends on the outside. “Book banning is in some ways the most despicable and nastiest element of the new rules,” she writes. It’s a rather inflammatory statement: it isn’t books themselves that are banned, in fact the IEP policy specifically states that prisoners on all levels of the scheme are permitted up to 12 books in their possession at any one time, and that they may use the prison library as well as buying books from their weekly allowance. But a keen reader will quickly exhaust this supply, and to restrict a prisoner from an activity that is both enjoyable and educational seems counter-productive.

The presence of drugs in prisons is an age-old problem; the smuggling of illicit mobile phones a constant problem. Prisons might well lack the resources to carry out proper searches of mail, but why should prisoners bear the brunt of staff shortages? We cannot give education to prisoners with one hand, yet take away access to books with the other. “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails,” Nelson Mandela once said. “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” Grayling’s IEP policy would suggest we’ve got our priorities wrong.

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Clare Mackintosh

Written by Clare Mackintosh

Clare Mackintosh is a freelance feature-writer, columnist and crime novelist, and a former Police Inspector. Follow her on Twitter @claremackint0sh or read her blog at www.claremackintosh.com/blog

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