Prison book ban ruled unlawful
A prisoner who says she loves reading has won a High Court battle against Justice Secretary Chris Grayling's controversial restrictions on jail inmates receiving books from friends and family.
A judge declared the restrictions introduced by a new prison rule in November 2013 "unlawful".
Mr Justice Collins's decision was a victory for Barbara Gordon-Jones, 56, a convicted arsonist with a borderline personality disorder who has a degree and a doctorate in English literature.
Gordon-Jones, of Tudeley, near Tunbrige Wells, Kent, who also suffers from depression and epilepsy, is serving an indefinite sentence for the protection of the public and is being held at Send prison near Woking, Surrey.
She was denied legal aid but was able to bring her court challenge because lawyers represented her for free.
She challenged the section of the new Prison Service Instruction (PSI) she said "imposes substantial restrictions on the ability of prisoners to receive, or have for their use, books".
The judge said the PSI amended the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (IEP).
He said: "I am satisfied that insofar as it includes books in IEP schemes, the PSI is unlawful."
The ruling was welcomed by solicitors firm Lound Mulrenan Jefferies, who acted for Gordon-Jones pro bono along with barristers Jenni Richards QC, Victoria Butler-Cole and Annabel Lee.
The solicitors said in a statement: "Reading is a right and not a privilege, to be encouraged and not restricted.
"Indeed, Mr Justice Collins commented that, as far as books are concerned, 'to refer to them as a privilege is strange'.
"The policy was unnecessary, irrational and counter-productive to rehabilitation. It is now rightly judged unlawful."
The solicitors said the Justice Secretary and prison governor "sought to argue that there remained adequate access to books because prisoners borrow them from the prison library or purchase them with their own money, but this was rejected in today's judgment".
They said: "Prison libraries are often inadequately stocked and there are restrictions on access.
"Spending caps for prisoners usually mean that there is enough for bare essentials but not for books."
Referring to the fact that Gordon-Jones was refused legal aid, the solicitors warned: "Under current proposals to restrict judicial review, it would be more difficult to bring this case and hold the Government to account."
A Prison Service spokeswoman said: "This is a surprising judgment.
"There never was a specific ban on books and the restrictions on parcels have been in existence across most of the prison estate for many years and for very good reason.
"Prisoners have access to the same public library service as the rest of us, and can buy books through the prison shop.
"We are considering how best to fulfil the ruling of the court. However, we are clear that we will not do anything that would create a new conduit for smuggling drugs and extremist materials into our prisons."
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: "The ban on sending books to prisoners was always an absurd policy.
"It had nothing to do with punishing and reforming prisoners but was an example of David Cameron's Government's sloppy policy-making.
"This is a victory for all those who campaigned against the ban and the Government should abandon the ludicrous policy with immediate effect."
Mr Khan added: "What's more, the absurdity of this policy has been exposed by judicial review, the very mechanism Chris Grayling is trying to neuter with his Criminal Justice and Courts Bill.
"Judicial review is a critical constitutional tool by which unlawful actions by governments are exposed.
"The Tory-led Government's shameful attack on judicial review would insulate them from challenge, place them above the law and prevent injustices from being rectified."
Denis MacShane, the former Labour MP jailed for six months for expenses fraud, described today's judgment as "a modest win for common sense".
He said he had a suitcase full of books confiscated when he was sent to Belmarsh Prison last Christmas.
"Chris Grayling seems to think that being unpleasant to prisoners is good for society. On the contrary it makes rehabilitation much more difficult," he said.
"I knew that my judge would impose a prison sentence even without a trial so filled a big suitcase with books to read. They were all taken off me when I entered Belmarsh and, when I asked why, I was told the guards were following new orders from Chris Grayling.
"Friends who tried to send book via Amazon had them returned as undeliverable. I never saw the prison library in Belmarsh and was allowed one 10-minute visit to the Brixton Library.
"All envelopes and packets are opened and searched when they arrive in prison and the idea that drugs or extremist material arrives in the post is just nonsense.
"This ruling by a judge is a modest win for common sense, though the real breakthrough will happen only when our judges also assert their independence over politicians and stop imposing so many knee-jerk custodial sentences for non-violent first-time crime and especially on women."
Sarah Turvey, principal lecturer in English, and co-founder of the University of Roehampton's prison reading groups, said: "Any society which is committed to the rehabilitation of prisoners has to welcome the High Court's verdict.
"Books are absolutely critical to widen people's understanding, and there is perhaps no other group of people where this is more important than prisoners."
Ms Turvey, a regular volunteer reader at Wandsworth Prison, said: "Reading allows people to connect to their wider communities and new ideas, they are a great way to build citizenship.
"Books in prisons are vital, and it needs to be remembered that in the current climate of radically re-organising prisons, it is even more difficult for inmates to get to libraries, so we need to remove the obstacles of them having access to books."
An MoJ spokesman said: "Recent reforms to legal aid and judicial review had absolutely no impact on whether legal aid was granted in this case, nor would the reforms impact on the availability of legal aid for this type of case in the future."