A few months back, a lot of prison reform organisations and charities (all very worthy organisations, and some of which I give regular donations to) decided to start campaigning against a ban on books being sent to prisoners through the post. As a result of their campaign, prisoners can now receive books through the post. A lot of people are now celebrating this “victory”.
And, indeed, it is entirely a good thing that prisoners can now receive books through the post. So why have I put “victory” in quotes? Why am I not celebrating?
The reason is that, as the Home Office have said every time they were asked about this, “there never was a specific ban on books”. They are entirely correct in this. What happened was that last year, under the odious Chris Grayling (a man whose malice is only exceeded by his pettiness and stupidity) prisoners were banned from receiving *any parcels at all*.
This led to, for example, prisoners who ovulate not being able to receive spare underwear from their families and having to use soiled underwear.
As the Prison Reform Trust put it:
Under the rules, families are prevented from sending in basic items of stationery such as cards, paper or pens to help people in prison keep in touch with their friends and families and wish them a happy Christmas. They are also prevented from sending books and magazines or additional warm clothes and underwear to the prison. Instead people in prison are now forced to pay for these items out of their meagre prison wages to private companies who make a profit from selling goods to prisoners.
Yet every campaign group seemed to agree that the best way to deal with this was to talk of a “book ban”, and to campaign for prisoners to be able to receive books through the post. Not to campaign for prisoners to be able to receive clean underwear, but for them to be able to receive books.
Now, admittedly, the kind of person who gives to the Howard League or similar organisations is probably a middle-class book-lover who is more horrified by the idea of losing books than anything else (guilty as charged), and so the focus on books looks like it makes sense from a PR perspective, but I argued from the start that this campaign was fundamentally flawed. First, it was dishonest — it made it appear that there was a specific ban on books, when there never was — and secondly, it gave the authorities an out, in that they could just allow books without getting rid of the major injustice.
Of course that wouldn’t happen, people told me. The campaign was to get rid of the parcel ban, and books were just a convenient label for people to rally around and to act as a slogan for the campaign, people told me. Stop whining and get with the programme, people told me.
So what happened? Exactly what I predicted — there’s now a special exemption, solely for books (so long as those books are sold by four specific booksellers), rather than a rethinking of the regulations generally, to allow parcels to be sent containing other essential items.
And for complaining that this — exactly what I predicted, and what I was told would definitely not happen — has happened, I’m now being told I’m “letting the best be the enemy of the good” and I should be celebrating.
Yes, the campaign has worked, and yes, the result is better than the situation Grayling created. But it’s still significantly worse than the situation before that, and now as far as everyone on Twitter seems concerned the problem is solved. The problem was books, right? And now they have books? So the problem’s been solved.
Had the campaign been, as it should have been, against the general principle rather than the specific example of books, then we might now be celebrating a real victory, rather than a Pyrrhic one which leaves prisoners without access to the most basic necessities, but allows them to read…
There have been a couple of examples of this kind of thing lately: remember how “Gove fiddling with the English curriculum” morphed into a specific ban on anyone reading “Of Mice and Men”?
Yes, it’s a VERY common pattern in politics at the moment. I blame 38Degrees, though I’m not sure they’re not just a symptom.