This weekend I watched a little bit of Sport Relief. Davina McCall was visiting a quarry where young children worked. She returned with one of the children to her corrugated tin home. The child produced from a bag her most treasured possessions – two tattered school books without covers that had been given to her by a friend. In these books she carefully copied any word vaguely medical as she wanted to be a doctor. In the midst of all that poverty, deprivation and struggle books were a true symbol of hope.
Thankfully we do not have children working in quarries. We do have people in custodial institutions. The vast majority of them are richly deserving of punishment. We have to hope that most of them are capable of redemption. Many of them will be poorly educated. Thanks to the Lord Chancellor all of them will now struggle to have books sent into them from their family of friends.
We know that the Lord Chancellor is not a man to let a sensible policy get in the way of a headline. We know he likes that photograph of him, arms folded, locked prison gate in the background, looking all tough. But books? Really?
I have delivered many a lame mitigation in my time but I have never ever uttered the phrase “what started out as a few social stanzas with friends soon grew to an out of control spiral of book abuse and so began my client’s descent into criminality”. Not once.
What ill is the book ban hoping to stamp out? Is Grayling worried that prisoners may be given ideas from “Escape from Colditz”? Has there been an outbreak of prisoners getting over the wall by climbing a tottering pile of Enid Blyton? Has tobacco and cannabis been replaced by “Pickwick Papers” as the currency of the landings? Has the front page of the Daily Mail been filled with stories of how prisons are becoming more like holiday camps because of the endless supply of autobiographies?
The answer it seems is that they want to encourage prisoners to earn money to buy books. Having looked at the prison incentive scheme it strikes me that it is probably easier for a prisoner to have a TV in his cell and a Playstation than it is for his family to send him a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird”.
I appreciate that the system of reward and privilege is an essential part of prison discipline. It would be more reassuring if the Lord Chancellor would expend more energy explaining that to the public than he does on endless tinkering. However books are such a powerful, positive influence on people that their widespread availability is something to be cherished and promoted.
Rights and privileges are a hallmark of a decent society. Whilst I pause to observe that there is an irony in a Minister of Justice who wishes to lessen the rights of prisoners whilst making privileges out of rights I will say that the access to education through literature is to be cherished as a right, not dangled as a reward. I do not for one moment kid myself that every violent thug is going to have his life transformed by reading Proust but surely we have to see that if a starving child in Africa can be touched by the power of the written word then there is a man in Strangeways who may find a inspiration in life through reading.
I am tempted to send Mr Grayling one or two books. “The Rule of Law” and “The Morality of Law” might be good places to start. Or maybe just “Nutshell’s Guide to Being Lord Chancellor”. You see I believe even our errant Minister of Justice can find redemption in the written word. That is testament to how powerful it can be.