50 shades of Grayling.
Isn't Chris Grayling brilliant? Most other politicians would have realised within a week they were fighting a losing battle over something so petty and self-defeating as preventing prisoners from having books and clothing sent into them by their relatives, and backed down, setting say a limit of one parcel allowed every six weeks. Grayling instead has decided to resort to every excuse possible as to why such a scheme couldn't be established, even if his choice reason is one he didn't even mention in his first missive on why prisoners have to earn the right to everything under his new tough rehabilitation/privileges regime.
Yes, the real reason why prisoners can't be sent books from outside is, of course, drugs, with a side order of not allowing in extremist or pornographic material. Grayling didn't mention a thing about illegal substances in his first response for politics.co.uk, only that allowing in unlimited parcels would never be secure. No one had suggested such a thing, but let's put that to one side. Next, in a piece for Conservative Home, Grayling did open his case by asking whether it should be made easier to smuggle drugs into prison, yet he then spends much of the rest of his article complaining about how a "left-wing pressure group" (not the most accurate description of the Howard League) and other opponents are liberal lunatics for daring to disagree with him in general. Lastly, in an open letter to the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who took part in a protest outside Pentonville prison last Friday against the ban, he strikes a far more emollient tone, while sticking to the whole drugs argument.
The obvious problem with Grayling's it's the drugs, stupid rhetoric, apart from how he's only grasped for it once everyone realised even some of the most ruthless governments on the planet still allow those they incarcerate to read as much or as little as they want, is that it's so easily solved. Until recently Send Books to Prisoners acted as an intermediary through which relatives could send packages, making the chances of anyone trying to get banned materials through far more remote. Rolling out such a system across the prison estate would be fairly simple. In any case, the idea that the main way drugs get into prisons is in parcels is a nonsense: they're either brought in by the prison officers themselves or chucked over a wall, although visitors have also long chanced their arm. In any case, more recently the most smuggled items by visitors have been mobile phones rather than drugs.
Still, you can't be too careful even if it is just books and not drugs, hence why Grayling also brings up the spectre of paedophiles "accessing illegal written pornographic material" if books aren't properly checked as to their content. This seems to ignore how people will masturbate to almost anything if they can't get their hands on their favoured stuff, or indeed how the more ingenious will write their own such stories to be shared if they have no intention of addressing their behaviour. Nor should the prison librarians themselves have to put up with slurs on their work, again despite no one suggesting they were at fault. It's just that as library provision outside prison has been cut back, with local authorities also being in charge of their equivalents behind closed walls, it's hardly going to be surprising if the offering isn't as comprehensive as it could be.
Throughout his responses, the one question Grayling has failed to answer is why the privileges scheme can't be altered to allow such vital, humanising items as books, underwear and homemade cards from relatives to be sent in, while still leaving the rest of his changes unaffected. Is it because cuts to the Ministry of Justice/Home Office have left prisons with too few staff to possibly process anything other than letters? Is it down to how he really does believe denying prisoners the most basic things that make life worth living, unless they are earned, builds character and helps rehabilitation? Or is it this has all been bluff, and that once the furore has died down, Grayling will allow a compromise whereby books and other items can be sent through an intermediary every so many weeks?
You have to hope it's the third and Grayling can be embarrassed into doing the right thing. It does however speak volumes that not so much as a peep has been heard from backbench Liberal Democrat MPs on the matter, while Simon Hughes has supported Grayling. If the intention has been to prevent any other former jailbirds from getting a Graun column on release though, perhaps we shouldn't be quite so hasty.