Chris Grayling is Lord Chancellor, Secretary of State for Justice, and MP for Epsom and Ewell.
So hands up who thinks we should make it easier to smuggle drugs into prison? Or who thinks someone who threatens a prison officer and loses their privileges as a result should simply be able to phone home – and get the things they are no longer allowed to buy in the prison shop sent in from home instead?
So when a left-wing pressure group launches an attack on us over books, you have to start by deleting the word “books” and inserting the word “parcels”.
It was never the case that prisoners were simply allowed unlimited parcels – books or otherwise. There’s good reason for it. We have about 85,000 people in our prisons. If each received a parcel each week, we would have something like four and a half million parcels a year coming through the prison gates. It would be a logistical impossibility to search them all, and they would provide an easy route for illegal materials. When you are working hard to keep drugs and extremist materials out of prisons, that hardly seems a good idea.
The only change over the past few months has been to ensure that all prisoners are treated the same. They can receive one parcel of essential items when they first arrive, but after that they can only get letters and cards from home, unless the circumstances are exceptional.
There has, though, been a big change in the prison regime. 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. And some things have gone altogether – like 18 certificate DVDs and Sky Sports in some prisons. It’s bizarre that they were ever there in the first place.
The penalties for bad behaviour are tougher too. You lose the right to wear your own clothes, and have to wear uniform instead. You lose the TV from your cell. These are the kind of changes the public wanted to see. A regime that is more Spartan unless you do the right thing.
And of course it’s the kind of thing that left wing pressure groups hate. That’s why they are trying to persuade the public that we have banned books and brought a halt to all rehabilitation. It is, of course, complete nonsense.
First, the books issue. You can keep up to twelve books in your cell at any one time. All prisoners can access well-stocked prison libraries. The biggest debate I have had over prison libraries so far is whether they should stock 50 Shades of Grey. I decided they could – since if doing so encourages women prisoners to read, that can only be a good thing.
But that’s not all. Prisoners can use their own prison earnings to order any book (within reason) that they want through the prison shop. The only restriction is on receiving unknown and unchecked parcels. What the left can’t deal with is our rehabilitation agenda. It goes against the grain for them. Our approach is to mix tough and compassionate – and to do things differently to get the job done.
So far, we’ve been attacked for making people earn privileges by engaging in positive activity while in prison.
We’ve been attacked by moving to replace prison-like Youth Offender Institutions with a new approach, the Secure College, which will be more of an educational facility, with a fence around it designed to make sure there is intensive skill building when teenagers are inside. Heaven alone knows why the Left hate the idea, but they do.
We’ve been attacked for wanting to reform probation by bringing together the best of public sector risk management, private sector efficiency and voluntary sector mentoring skills to bring down reoffending and provide mentoring support to 50,000 prisoners a year who get none at the moment – and usually end up back in prison a few months later.
We’ve even been attacked for saying that prisoners shouldn’t get legal aid to go to court to argue that they should be detained in a different prison. I’d rather spend the money on something more positive
The truth is that reoffending is far too high and has barely changed in a decade. It’s time that changed. That’s why we are bringing right-wing solutions to bear on social problems where the Left has palpably failed