Isabel Hardman has a piece in the Daily Telegraph today about the widely reported ban on books being sent to prisons.
She rightly points out, as Chris Grayling did on this site last week, that there is no specific “ban on books” – rather, there is a ban on parcels going into prisons, whether they contain books or anything else.
Her article also highlights that this is really about a broader issue than literature and literacy. Those campaigning against Grayling’s parcel policy are engaged in a proxy war, using it as a way to express their wider opposition to the Coalition’s reforms to the justice system:
‘This is a very effective device for the justice establishment, which is starting to behave in a similar way to the “blob” that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has spent the past few years struggling with over his reforms to the school system. The justice blob disagrees with the substance of Mr Grayling’s changes and needs a hook to get more attention. The books are the hook.’
All this is true. Many whose careers are tied to the old, failed justice establishment bitterly oppose the radical reforms Grayling has introduced – and they have eagerly rallied around this issue in the hope of doing him harm.
It’s distasteful that they are scrabbling to attack a minister precisely to stop reforms which seek to break the cycle of reoffending which ruins the lives of convicts as well as victims. There are clear parallels to the NUT’s attempts to undermine education reforms that will improve the prospects of school pupils.
We should deplore their tribalism – but it would be a mistake to answer it with blind tribalism of our own.
With Grayling under attack from leftists and vested interests, the natural instinct of those of us who support his wider reforms is to support this policy. But in this case that instinct is wrong.
Before exchanging fire with an opponent, it’s sensible to consider why they picked this particular battlefield. It’s unwise to simply charge in without considering the the risks of allowing them to set the terms of the debate.
The so-called “ban on books” is their chosen topic for several reasons. In practical terms, it appeals to the media, it is easy to explain and it sounds emotionally compelling, all of which make it an effective way for them to land punches on the Justice Secretary.
There is another reason, though. It may be heretical to admit it, but the ‘justice blob’ picked this topic because, beneath all their hyperbole and spin, there is a kernel of truth in the charge that the blanket nature of the policy is unreasonable.
As Grayling argued here last week, perks in prison are now conditional:
‘You no longer get privileges just by keeping your nose clean. If you are going to get access to greater rights to buy stuff from the prison shop, or to make more phone calls each week, you have to engage in proper positive rehabilitative activity.’
That’s clearly the right principle. Greater conditionality on perks generates more rehabilitation, more rehabilitation reduces reoffending, and less reoffending saves taxpayers’ money.
So why has the receipt of books from outside prison, something which is not only a perk but is in itself rehabilitatory, not been made conditional like phone calls or shopping rights? It makes little sense to have forbidden it alongside 18-certificate DVDs and Sky Sports when we know that, unlike horror films and Chelsea matches, increased literacy gives prisoners a better chance of going straight once they are released.
The answer is that ‘unchecked parcels’ are a route to smuggle drugs or other illicit materials into prisons. Fine, but the problem there is not the existence of parcels but the face that they are unchecked.
The government argues that if each prisoner received a parcel a week then it would be logistically impossible to check them all. But this is not a binary choice between a free-for-all narcotics postal system and a blanket ban.
By making the receipt of parcels of books – and only books – a perk that prisoners can gain by engaging in ‘proper positive rehabilitative activity’, the amount of checks required could be kept at manageable levels.
Looking at the justice blob ranged against him, the prospect of agreeing to such a compromise may stick in Grayling’s craw.
That’s understandable, but he should consider the trouble that doing so would cause his opponents.
It would draw the sting of their only vaguely successful campaign against him, allowing him to hammer them on much more important matters – the rehabilitation revolution, the new freedoms for charities and other third parties to get prisoners’ lives back on track, the taxpayer savings that can be made by cutting reoffending and, most of all, the total failure of the old elite to build a justice system that worked.
These are truly great, conservative reforms for which Chris Grayling gets too little credit, and which will make a great contribution to the safety, wealth and happiness of our society. It’s no wonder the left don’t want to talk about them – but it is Grayling’s choice as to whether they have the opportunity to fill the headlines with ‘book ban’ claims instead.
A swift compromise would allow the rest of his work to shine forth. A drawn out trench war over a side issue will allow his opponents to continue distracting people from the good he is doing.