Of Books and Bingo

One of the things that the public never grasp, that I never grasped until I became a barrister, is that ordinary people end up in prison too. A lot of them. Not every prisoner is a tattoo’d violent thug. Not every prisoner is stuck in the revolving door of the prison system. That the public do not understand it is understandable, that the MoJ should base every policy and public utterance on this fallacy is disgraceful.

Disgraceful but not entirely surprising. My previous experience of politics has always been as an interested observer. Never before have I been so directly interested in a particular department that I have paid as much interest in the goings on of a ministry as I have been since the Transforming Legal Aid consultation was announced. So now I realise that the Ministry of Justice will never let the truth hinder their thoughts, actions or public pronouncements.

So the “book ban” story has been a fine example of their general approach. It is a shame that the “justice ban” brought about by the restrictions on access to courts for prisoners has not received as much media attention but I will take my exposure of the MoJ wherever I can. And in this case they are exposed as lying, cheating, penny pinchers who put the monetary cost of anything ahead of its value.

The restriction on books and other items being sent into prisoners is contained within a prison circular designed to promote the “Incentives and Enhanced Privileges” scheme. The context is given that it is too easy for prisoners to just have things sent in for them. They should earn their access to things by being compliant in the prison. Then they will be able to earn money to buy the things that may improve the hours spent otherwise idle. The early statements from the MoJ defending this policy were all about this. This is of course a blanket ban introduced based on the idea that every offender is in need of, and is resistant to, rehabilitation. It does not cater for the idea that being able to receive small personal things from the outside world may act as a brake to an offender’s further descent into poor behaviour. If the idea was that you had to earn the right to have things like books why not just introduce that you had to earn the right to have them sent in from outside?

Then came the change. Then came the justification that parcels had to be banned because they were being abused by prisoners seeking to receive contraband items such as phones and drugs. The parcels could not be screened for the presence of such things. Something had to be done. A ban was the only answer.

If that were true then the only answer to the tide of drugs and phones in prison is to ban prison officers from entering the prison estate. And to ban new prisoners as well. As anyone knows there are a number of ways drugs etc get into prisons. They are sent hidden in parcels (albeit I venture to suggest rarely), they are carried in hidden about new prisoners or visitors, they are thrown over prison walls or they are conveyed by corrupt prison workers. If the answer to the drug problem in prisons is to ban the means of them being smuggled then you are going to have some pretty empty prisons devoid of prisoners or guards.

So the truth is that in order to tackle one problem the MoJ will create another problem and hide it in a false justification. The problem seems to be that prisons cannot afford the labour or the equipment involved in checking parcels that enter the establishment. So something which is generally seen as a positive influence is sacrificed on the altar of cost.

And I seriously hope that it is only cost that has come into this equation and not profit. I recently came across this article which kind of made sense. There is profit to be made from the prison estate having a single supplier of items to their captive market. I believe that David Mowat MP would call that an anti-competitive cartel. I am sure he will be raising questions in the House about it.

I hope someone will. Because on the Today programme Jeremy Wright was asked to identify the business that would supply the books to prisoners. He came nowhere close to answering. Are the MoJ making money out of this cartel with a single supplier into the prison estate? As you can see from the InsideTimes article the prison service justified the 5% profit they were making on Argos orders as covering the administration charge. In that case, why not charge for a parcel being checked? Either payable by the family member when it is dropped off or payable out of the prisoner’s money if they want the parcel to come to their cell.

Charge £1 a parcel for prisoners who have been allowed the privilege of receiving parcels. Discipline and costs covered. Bingo! And the Government like Bingo.

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