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Hard times: Top British writers blast prisoner book ban

An alliance of British authors have some harsh words for the government’s new rules that prohibit prisoners from receiving the works of their favorite authors while serving time behind bars.

The book ban, which falls under the government’s Incentives and Earned Privileges initiative passed in November, denies inmates the right to receive packages from beyond the walls of the prison unless they can prove “exceptional circumstances” such as a health condition.

The ruling, which seems to fly in the face of the country’s rich literary heritage, has come under fire from a number of eminent British writers, including Alan Bennett, Sir Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Irvine Welsh and Nick Hornby, who signed their names to a letter blasting the decision.

“We are extremely concerned at new rules that ban family and friends sending in books to prisoners. Whilst we understand that prisons must be able to apply incentives to reward good behavior by prisoners, we do not believe that education and reading should be part of that policy,” says the letter, which was signed by more than 80 leading British authors.

”Books represent a lifeline behind bars, a way of nourishing the mind and filling the many hours that prisoners spend locked in their cells. In an environment with no internet access and only limited library facilities, books become all the more important.

“We urge the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, to reconsider the Prison Service Instruction that limits books and other essentials being sent to prisoners from family and friends.”

The government, which is promoting an incentives program that allows inmates to earn extra funds to purchase books, has defended its decision to prohibit prisoners from receiving books from the outside by the need to protect against items deemed dangerous.

“The restrictions on access to parcels by prisoners are necessary because of the need to limit the ability of offenders to get hold of drugs and contraband,” Grayling wrote on the ConservativeHome website.

It was never the case that prisoners were simply allowed unlimited parcels – books or otherwise … It would be a logistical impossibility to search them all, and they would provide an easy route for illegal materials. The only change over the past few months has been to ensure all prisoners are treated the same.”

The critics fired back, pointing to direct passages in the ruling that forbid parcels sent to prisoners. Section 10.4 of the Incentives and Earned Privileges guidelines states: “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.”

British political observer Ian Hunt, writing in his blog at Politics.co.uk, accused Grayling of being“disingenuous” because the prohibited items “include books and magazine subscriptions.” Hunt says it is“simply a matter of fact that prisoners’ access to reading material has been curtailed.”

Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, was the first to report on the British book ban. She said prison libraries are the first to feel the pinch when government budgets fall under the spending ax.

Prison libraries are supplied and funded by local authorities and have often been surprisingly good, but so many libraries are now closing and cutting costs that inevitably the first service to feel the pinch is in prison,” Crook wrote at Politics.co.uk.

“Whilst many will not want to read a book to pass these endless hours, many boys I have met in prison do indeed read avidly.”

At the same time, many inmates hope to use their time in prison as an opportunity to advance themselves and extend their education so they are better prepared for life outside of the prison’s walls. But if prison libraries are limited in supply of study material, and inmates are forbidden from receiving such publications from family and friends, then many will have no chance to get the books they need.

Meanwhile, David Cameron’s spokesman said yesterday that the prime minister fully supported Grayling’s Incentives and Earned Privileges program, which is becoming a divisive political issue.

A petition on the change.org website calling for ending the book ban had attracted more than 15,000 signatures.

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