by Andrew Jenkins
A row between the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, and in particular Frances Crook, the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, has recently erupted over new rules which prohibit prisoners from receiving parcels from family and friends.
The crucial consequence of the ban is that prisoners can no longer receive books, leading to a fervent accusation from some that books have been ‘banned’ in prisons.
Prior to November 2013, when the new rules were introduced, whether a prisoner could beceive a parcel was at the discretion of the Prison Governor. Before proceeding into the detail of the debate, it is worth setting out the facts, in so much as providing a description of the Incentives and Earned Privileges document.
The document explains:
“The Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme was introduced in 1995 with the expectation that prisoners would earn additional privileges through demonstrating responsible behaviour and participation in work or other constructive activity…In order to earn privileges prisoners will now have to work towards their own rehabilitation, behave well and help others. The absence of bad behaviour alone will no longer be sufficient to progress through the scheme.”
The main change being that good behave will now be rewarded, rather than the previous system whereby the threat of lost privileges was used as a deterrent against bad behaviour. Under this scheme there are four levels: entry; basic; standard; and enhanced.
Beyond books, some of the restrictions on ‘entry level’ prisoners include: limitations on use of the gym; access to increased amounts of money; access to higher paid work in prison; and the right to wear their own clothes.
The six key earnable privileges are: extra and improved visits; eligibility to earn higher rates of pay; access to in-cell television; wearing of own clothes; access to private money; and time out of cell for association.
In addition to this section 10 sets out Additional Non Designated Key Earnable Privileges, chosen from the list at Annex F:
“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.” (Page 46)
The argument with regard to the banning of books comes from the extract below:
“To ensure that the IEP 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.”
Therefore books are not banned but cannot be received from family and friends. Access can still be obtained through the use of prison libraries, whereby each prisoner is entitled to sign out a maximum of 12 books at any one time, or by purchasing books with their earnings through an approved supplier.
There are identified problems with this system which mean that access to books is more restricted. Despite the Ministry of Justice asserting that funding for prison libraries has not been cut, the generally accepted situation is that they remain underfunded; therefore it is not unrealistic to suggest that the initial funding was insufficient. Prisoners’ earnings are likely to average between £10 and £15 a week, making the purchasing of books a disproportionately expensive endeavour.
Moreover there remains a concern that staff limitations, particularly in terms of numbers means that more prisoners are spending longer in their cells, and have limited access to prison libraries. Restricting access to the outside world will do little to prevent institutionalisation and further reformation.
Furthermore an issue has been identified with regard to those prisoners studying for Open University degrees or courses, who will now find it difficult to obtain the books necessary for their studies, due to the 12 book limit and restricted access.
Frances Crook described the reforms as “Part of an increasingly irrational punishment regime orchestrated by Chris Grayling that grabs the headlines but restricts education or rehabilitation.”
Chris Grayling has robustly defended the policy, mainly on the grounds that prisoners receiving parcels is a risk to security, the searching thereof for contraband is thus an unmanageable task, if not curtailed in this way. In response to the argument about books he stated:
“Let’s be clear about one thing: prisoners’ access to reading material is not being curtailed. All prisoners may at any one time have up to 12 books in their cells. All prisoners have access to the library, irrespective of which institution they are being held in.
If any prisoner wishes to buy books from the money he or she gets from their pay, then that is up to them. If a prisoner has engaged with their own rehabilitation in prison, then he will be on a higher level in the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, and so would have more money to spend – on books if he so chooses.”
He also argued that the reforms were introducing consistency across the prison estate in terms of what can and cannot be received by prisoners. He went on to make an impassioned defence of the policy:
“So hands up who thinks we should make it easier to smuggle drugs into prison? Or who thinks someone who threatens a prison officer and loses their privileges as a result should simply be able to phone home – and get the things they are no longer allowed to buy in the prison shop sent in from home instead?
So when a left-wing pressure group launches an attack on us over books, you have to start by deleting the word ‘books’ and inserting the word parcels.”
There are a couple of issues contained within Chris Grayling’s response which merit the courtesy of correction. The logic of his general argument cannot be criticised too heavily, however the decision to include books as a special luxury rather than a minimum requirement is not a decision he should be particularly proud of, and the Howard League are not a left-wing pressure group, but a non-partisan charity, which holds consultative status with the United Nations.
Having set out, at length the arguments on both sides, I wish to briefly discuss an issue inherent within treating rehabilitation in such a way, in so doing using the Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence as an illustration of a similar problem.
In the title I make reference to the “myth of rehabilitation”, by this I mean that the generally accepted idea that prisoners should and can be rehabilitated does not stand up to scrutiny.
Please allow me to be slightly reductive to add clarity to my argument. Say that the prison estate can be divided into two separate categories of prisoners: those who are there because they made a single mistake (those who do not have a previous criminal record and have acted out of character); and those who can be described, to a greater or lesser extent, as career criminals. The former do not require rehabilitating because it was an error of judgement unlikely to be repeated.
It is the latter category then which require rehabilitating. If someone needs to, and can be rehabilitated then they have an identifiable flaw which can be fixed. That flaw must therefore be correctible through the methods employed within the prison system. Moreover to employ methods which will be effective, the flaw must be known, ipso facto the cause of their offending behaviour is known and we can identify why people commit crime.
Of course beyond various theories, we have no established cause of criminal behaviour, which is why I refer to rehabilitation as a myth (save for those who are convicted of offences which follow from drug addiction whereby the cause is clear and treatable). What can be done is recognise and correct risk factors identified in longitudinal studies, for example the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development conducted by David Farrington. The IEP document makes reference to this in describing Enhanced Level prisoners being “fully committed to their rehabilitation, seeking to reduce their risk of reoffending” (Page 11).
One can foresee a familiar problem emerging on a wider scale than before. The IPP sentence failed in practice because of a reliance on rehabilitation without the appropriate resources within the prison estate, and a burden of proof placed on the prisoner which was almost impossible to discharge. If all prisoners are now expected to actively engage, and go above and beyond mere compliance in order to receive anything beyond a standard existence, then the resources must be present to ensure that this can work. If every prisoner now decides to undertake a training course, the prison estate must be able to accommodate that; otherwise we will see a repeat of the past and draconian punishments for a failure to achieve the impossible.