UK writers cheer as 'despicable' ban on sending books to prisons is lifted

J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Julian Barnes, and others expressed delight when a high court in the United Kingdom struck down a ban on sending books to prisoners.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Author J.K. Rowling said she was 'delighted' to hear that the policy had been struck down.

A UK high court Friday struck down a controversial prison policy that banned sending books to prisoners, a rule the country's top writers have said denies inmates the right to read. 

In his ruling, justice Andrew Collins said he disagreed with justice secretary Chris Grayling’s policy, which prevented families from sending books to prisoners, describing it as strange to regard books as a privilege.

“I see no good reason, in the light of the importance of books for prisoners, to restrict beyond what is required by volumetric control … and reasonable measures relating to frequency of parcels and security considerations,” he said.

In fact, the UK's Prison Service has no outright ban on books, just on receiving packages containing them. The Service says the ban is in place for security reasons and because carefully going through books for contraband is time-consuming.

A Prison Service spokesperson expressed his dismay at the ruling to the Guardian. “This is a surprising judgment. There never was a specific ban on books, and the restrictions on parcels have been in existence across most of the prison estate for many years and for very good reason," he said. "Prisoners have access to the same public library service as the rest of us, and can buy books through the prison shop. We are considering how best to fulfil the ruling of the court. However, we are clear that we will not do anything that would create a new conduit for smuggling drugs and extremist materials into our prisons.”

But the policy has long been condemned by many of the UK's most well-known and beloved authors, including poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who has led protests against the policy outside UK prisons, as well as Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Mark Haddon, Ian McEwan, and Mary Beard, among others who have applauded news of the ruling.

“This is a wise, just and irrefutably correct ruling,” said Duffy. “We all look forward to hearing to which prison library Mr. Grayling will be sending books for Christmas.”

Ali Smith, whose novel "How to Be Both" recently won the Goldsmiths prize, called the decision “the best news: the halting of an iniquitous and draconian ban, and an end to a move so reactionary that it was near unbelievable, a kind of surreal and appalling cherry on top of the recent barrage of pressures on civil liberties."

“The imagination triumphs over small-mindedness," said McEwan. "This is great news for prisoners, great news for the book.” 

Barnes described the ruling as “terrific news, and a rare victory for common sense.”

“Clearly the Ministry of Justice was taken aback by the public reaction to their mean and vindictive ban, and tried to claim that there was nothing new; it only enforced an already existing rule, and so forth," said Philip Pullman, who earlier called the ban "despicable." "Bluster. I’m very glad that the courts have seen through it, and stated that reading is a right and not a privilege.”

“Delighted to hear this," tweeted J.K. Rowling.

“What’s important for us is the recognition in the judgment that books are not a privilege but a necessity,” said Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, which together with the Howard League for Penal Reform started the Books For Prisoners campaign against the blanket ban.

The UK's prison's so-called book ban was challenged on behalf of an inmate, Barbara Gordon-Jones, who was convicted of offenses including arson and who has a doctorate in English literature. Gordon-Jones, the ruling notes, wanted to read books which were “not normally required by fellow prisoners.” She wanted books unavailable in prison libraries and was upset that she could not receive books from outside in parcels brought by friends and family. A neurologist who saw her in March 2014 “noted her love of reading and the importance to her of access to books."

As such, said Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform, which backs better prison conditions, “We are very glad that common sense has now prevailed in time for Christmas, when for three weeks, prisons will be virtually in lockdown.” In that time, she said, “a book from a loved one could literally save a life.”

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