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27 Jun 2014

Books For Prisoners: Leading writers take campaign to Downing Street

Leading authors will gather at Downing Street today (Friday 27 June) to urge David Cameron to overturn restrictions on sending books and other essentials to prisoners.

Writers including Sir David Hare, Mark Haddon, Sarah Waters, AL Kennedy and Kathy Lette are to join the Howard League for Penal Reform and English PEN for the event, organised as part of the Books For Prisoners campaign.

They will present to Number 10 a letter signed by more than 40 high-profile figures including Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Alan Bennett, Salman Rushdie, Philip Pullman, Vanessa Redgrave, Julian Barnes, Irvine Welsh,  Jacqueline Wilson and Joanne Harris.

“We believe this is a misguided policy,” the letter states. “Reading goes hand in hand with education and rehabilitation, whilst research shows that informal learning reduces reoffending… We strongly urge you to reverse this harmful policy at the earliest opportunity.”

The campaign is calling on the government to end restrictions, introduced in November 2013, which prevent families and friends sending books, underwear and other essentials to prisoners.

Tens of thousands of people have shown their support by signing a petition and sending photographs of bookshelves to the Ministry of Justice’s Twitter account using the hashtags “#shelfie” and “#booksforprisoners”. The government’s stance has also been condemned by international writers and former prisoners of conscience.

The gathering at Downing Street was organised after Justice Secretary Chris Grayling refused to meet the Poet Laureate and other writers to hear their concerns.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “That so many leading writers are urging the Prime Minister to act illustrates the growing disquiet over the ban on sending books and other essentials to prisoners. The Justice Secretary’s refusal to meet with us to discuss the issue has succeeded only in galvanising the campaign and baffling anyone who believes we should be broadening access to reading and not restricting it. This is a petty and counter-productive policy which the Ministry of Justice has tried and failed to justify with spurious arguments. It is surely time the government conceded a change, particularly against a backdrop of ever more overcrowding, growing unrest in prison and an alarming rise in suicides behind bars.”

Jo Glanville, Director of English PEN said: “We’re dismayed by the Justice Secretary’s failure to respond to an unprecedented public campaign. We’re hopeful that David Cameron will appreciate the necessity of reversing a misguided policy. There is already evidence of the positive and lasting benefits of access to books on prisoners. At a time of chronic overcrowding and stress in the prison population, it would be perverse to continue to deny supporting the enjoyment of a fundamental human right.”

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  2. English PEN is the founding centre of the international association of writers. PEN seeks to defend and promote the freedom to read and freedom to write here in the UK and around the world.
  3. The Books For Prisoners campaign was triggered by an article written for by Frances Crook.
  4. About 80 writers and dramatists urged the government to lift the restrictions on sending books and essentials in a letter to the Daily Telegraph. A second letter, signed by 100 leading figures, was published by the Evening Standard. Writers have also sent postcards to the Ministry of Justice, detailing which book they would like to send to a prisoner and why.
  5. The Prison Library Service document Prisons PSI 45/2011 Specification states that not only must all prisoners be allowed access to library books but library visits should be of a minimum 30 minutes’ duration and as often as is practical at times that facilitate access by prisoners. Access must be at least once every two weeks as an absolute minimum. Accessibility may be more frequent and for longer duration for prisoners wishing to research legal issues. It is understood that, in many prisons, access to library facilities does not comply with the statutory minimum.
  6. The Specification sets out minimum stock obligations. Reference material must be up to date, regularly refreshed, relevant, appropriate and readily available. The Public Library Authority (PLA) is expected to use links between its prison library service and mainstream library services to operate a book reservation system giving access to the holdings of the PLA and external organisations. Despite this statutory obligation, the Society of Authors has learned that book stock in many prisons is poor, often damaged or out of date, and that inter-library loan requests are often slow or not actioned at all.


Rob Preece
Press Officer
The Howard League for Penal Reform
Tel: +44 (0)20 7241 7880
Mobile: +44 (0)7714 604955

Robert Sharp
Head of Campaigns
English PEN
Tel: +44 (0)20 7324 2538
Mobile: +44 (0)7790 420011

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