High Court rules that the restriction of books in prisons is unlawful

3 February 2015

A recent High Court judgment has ruled that the controversial ban on the receipt of books by prisoners is unlawful. In his damning judgment, Mr Justice Collins was highly critical of the Ministry of Justice’s implication and justification of the Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013 which amended the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) Scheme in November 2013.

As we reported previously, in 2013 the Ministry of Justice introduced a severe restriction on the ability of prisoners to receive items, including books, either sent by friends or relatives or brought in by visitors. The ban on the receipt of books was publicised by the Howard League for Penal Reform and led to a major international campaign over the past year. The High Court was asked to decide on the matter when a challenge was brought by a prisoner to the specific part of the prison rules relating to the ability of prisoners generally to receive or have their own books. 

The Secretary of State for Justice argued that he did not dispute the importance of access to books by prisoners. He submitted that the restrictions on possession of books did not restrict access since whatever the prisoner wanted can be obtained through the prison library. He also claimed that prisoners are able to buy books from Amazon out of their earnings.

However, Mr Justice Collins stated that it was difficult to follow why books had been included in the IEP scheme when their availability to prisoners was regarded as so important. He highlighted that in order for access to not be restricted full library services would have to be available in every prison which is not always the case as “at some prisons access and content leave much to be desired.” There is also often a need to possess particular books as one’s own property. Mr Justice Collins also criticised the suggestion that prisoners have unlimited funds to purchase books, pointing out that some prisoners are only entitled to spend a maximum of £4 or £10 per week.

Mr Justice Collins accordingly found “no good reason” for restricting the receipt of the books and held that the PSI 30/2013, in so far as it applied to books, is unlawful. To refer to books as privileges was “strange” in light of the Secretary of State’s statement to the court on the importance of books. Mr Justice Collins also stated an open letter written by the Secretary of State to the Poet Laureate on this issue was “misleading” and that the previous absolute restriction, since amended, on the volume of books per cell was “absurd”.

The judgment also clearly articulated one of the core principles of our prison system, of which the Ministry of Justice often appears soundly oblivious to, namely that the penalty imposed by society is the deprivation of liberty and any further restrictions on prisoners must be fully justified.

In reaction to the ruling, Prisons Minister Andrew Selous stated:  “The judgment in this case was surprising, as there was never a specific ban on books. The restrictions on parcels have been in existence across most of the prison estate for many years and for very good reasons. Prisoners have access to the same library service as the rest of us, and can buy books through the prison shop." His comments suggest that he has failed to understand the most basic of points in the High Court judgment but, fortunately for all, his surprise does not negate the effect of the ruling. The Ministry of Justice have confirmed that it will not be appealing the decision and it has been reported that they are drafting new rules to reflect the judgment.

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