Denise Robertson: Stunting prisoners' education seems pretty close to torture

A furore has erupted over prisoners in our jails being denied books and once more I’m left wondering who to believe

Sean Dempsey/PA Wire Justice Secretary Chris Grayling
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling

A furore has erupted over prisoners in our jails being denied books and once more I’m left wondering who to believe.

Prisons Minister Chris Grayling says “You can keep up to twelve books in your cell at any one time.

“All prisoners can access well-stocked prison libraries. I decided they could stock 50 Shades of Grey since if doing so encourages women prisoners to read, that can only be a good thing.

“Prisoners can use their own prison earnings to order any book (within reason) that they want through the prison shop.

“The only restriction is on prisoners receiving unknown and unchecked parcels.”

A prison librarian writes to a national paper to confirm this but ex-Labour Minister Denis MacShane, who served a prison term for expenses fiddles, tells a different story.

“One of the first surprises when I entered Belmarsh prison was that all my books were confiscated. I had taken a suitcase of books to the Old Bailey three times as I waited for sentence. I was not allowed to take my books into Belmarsh, or writing pads and pens.

“When I asked why, the prison officer replied: ‘Ask Chris Grayling.’” MacShane claims he was allowed just one 10-minute trip to a tiny prison library during his six-week incarceration and described his joy at finding a book at last.

“The last 40 pages were missing but I smuggled the book into my cell.”

The mother of a prisoner serving a long sentence claims that, since Chris Grayling was in charge, her son’s prison does not allow books, has closed the art and music rooms and allows prisoners outside for half an hour only at meal times so that they must choose between food and fresh air.

Education courses are not allowed for long-term prisoners and her son would much prefer a regime of breaking rocks to confinement with little or no diversion.

I am not dewy-eyed about prisoners but to give them no diversion, deprive them of fresh air and stunt their education seems pretty close to torture to me.

Is there anyone without an axe to grind who can tell us what really goes on as it seems the Minister may not know?

:: Last year Ben Cawston, a 14-year-old pupil at a comprehensive, became the first state-educated pupil to win an under-15 singles national public schools title – which despite its name has previously allowed pupils from state schools to take part.

However, he has been denied entry to a doubles tournament after rackets professionals from the 14 top public schools, including Eton, Harrow and Rugby, voted to exclude state school players in future.

Not every public school representative is happy about this.

Winchester College’s master-in-charge of rackets condemned the decision.

“It is appalling. I was shocked when I heard and have no idea why the pros voted this way. We live in a worryingly divided society and charity legislation says public schools should have outreach programmes and connections with state schools – but we all feel this is something a school like ours should be doing anyway, because it is morally right”.

Winchester College’s headmaster also believes it is unfair that Ben has not been allowed to enter.

“To allow them to play in the doubles would seem to fit in perfectly with the sort of thing we all want, namely a generosity in the sharing of our many resources.”

Some insiders believe the real reason for the ban was that certain professionals feared their own star players might lose to Ben and his doubles partner, Thomas Foster.

If the ban remains how can the eventual champions ever feel true winners?

:: Last week Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband, Chris Martin, announced they were sad that their marriage was over but would do their very best to separate in a civilised way.

“We hope that as we consciously uncouple and coparent, we will be able to continue in the same manner.”

OK, the language was a bit pretentious but was there any need to feverishly seek the “real” reasons for the split, which just had to be another man or another woman or something equally sleazy.

When I suggested on TV that sometimes love just dies and we should accept it, Nick Ferrari was full of foreboding.

With a joint fortune of £80 million and five homes there was sure to be trouble ahead he said.

I hope the couple can prove the cynics wrong and set us an example of how to end a relationship with grace.


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