Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

United Kingdom: Prison Book Ban Overturned

A writ filed by Barbara Gordon-Jones, a prisoner at HM Prison Send in Surrey, southwest of London, resulted in the reversal of a policy instituted by the British government that effectively prevented prisoners from receiving books from friends and family members. Gordon-Jones, who is serving a life sentence, had argued that the books she received in parcels from her outside contacts were essential to her well-being.

The ban, which did not affect books already in institutional libraries, was implemented for security reasons, prison officials said, arguing that contraband had been mailed to prisoners in books.

“We can buy games consoles or DVD players but cannot get books for love nor money. And neither can we have them sent in,” said Nicholas Jordan, a prisoner at HM Prison Oakwood in Staffordshire, according to The Independent.

Blanket bans on books in U.S. prisons and jails have also been overturned in many jurisdictions, as courts have refused to uphold outright bans where prison officials have the means to inspect packages for contraband, or where books are mailed directly from the publisher or a bookseller.

Mr. Justice Collins, writing for the High Court of Justice, noted that the writ filed by Gordon-Jones “challenges the lawfulness of Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013 ... [which] relates to what are said to be unlawful restrictions of the ability of prisoners generally and the Claimant in particular to receive or have for their use books.... 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 consideration.” Accordingly, the court struck down the restriction on prisoners’ receipt of books. See: Queen v. Secretary of State for Justice, High Court of Justice, Queen’s Bench Division, Administrative Court, Case No. CO/2081/2014 (2014).

The book ban, put in place by previous Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, was described as a means to control the “perks and privileges” of prisoners, including the number of books permitted per cell, The Independent reported in July 2015 when HM Prison Service officials amended the regulation.

Under the revised policy, books are no longer excluded from the list of items that can be sent to prisoners, provided they are ordered from one of four approved vendors. Prisoners may have as many books allowed according to the number of possessions they are permitted in their cells.

According to Gordon-Jones’ attorneys, “Reading is a right and not a privilege, to be encouraged and not restricted. The policy was unnecessary, irrational and counter-productive to rehabilitation. It is now rightly judged unlawful.”

The Howard League for Penal Reform called the book ban a “gross misuse” of political power, and campaigned to reverse the policy while the court challenge was pending.

HM Prison Service officials feigned shock at the outrage that the ban provoked from both lawmakers and members of the public, not to mention the harsh language of the High Court of Justice in its decision striking down the ban.

“This is a surprising judgment,” said a spokesman. “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.”

During the campaign against the book ban, a number of distinguished British authors had issued a joint letter urging an end to the policy. Signatories included Alan Bennett, Sir Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Carol Ann Duffy, Sir David Hare, Mark Haddon, Philip Pullman, Irvine Welsh, Nick Hornby, Ian Rankin, Joanne Harris and Ruth Padel.

“We are extremely concerned at new rules that ban family and friends sending in books to prisoners,” they wrote. “Whilst we understand that prisons must be able to apply incentives to reward good behaviour by prisoners, we do not believe that education and reading should be part of that policy. Books represent a lifeline behind bars, a way of nourishing the mind and filling the many hours that prisoners spend locked in their cells. In an environment with no internet access and only limited library facilities, books become all the more important.”


As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login