DUNCAN BARKES: Reading’s a right, not a privilege, even in jail

You wouldn’t let a plumber fix your car as a mechanic would do a much a better job, so why do we tolerate politicians managing areas of public life they know nothing about?

It is a fair question, especially when you consider the absurd decision made by the Ministry of Justice ruling that families are no longer able to send books to their loved ones in prison.

Chris Grayling, the justice minister believed to be behind the move, is an affable chap.

I’ve met him twice and interviewed him once, but can only presume that recently he has undergone a lobotomy.

Discussing this latest ruling, a lawyer pointed out that the justice minister has no legal background or real experience of the prison system.

A quick search reveals his career was in television production and management consultancy before entering politics.

I spoke with a former inmate who had just completed a seven-year stint in prison.

The ministry of justice says books sent to prisoners can be used to smuggle drugs.

My interviewee mocked this idea, as in his experience most drugs were brought in by visitors or via prison officers keen to make a few quid.

He described the poor state of the prison library he had access to and credits the books he was sent by family as being key to turning his life around.

One of the books he was sent – and which was not available in the prison library – was Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.

The ministry of justice believes access to books from the outside should be earned along with other privileges, but I do not think a book should be classified as being on par with, say, a games console or treats from the prison shop.

Reading should be encouraged, especially given the poor levels of literacy in modern society.

Perhaps if the justice minister had a bit more experience of the penal system, he might have adopted a more enlightened approach?

The Conservative part of the coalition government is clearly gearing up for next year’s general election and Grayling’s book ruling makes a great headline for the kind of voter who wants this country to be tougher on prisoners.

This is why it is so depressing; a politician making a decision in order to appeal to voters and not giving an ounce of thought to those it affects.

It has, of course, been going on for decades, but at the expense of political credibility. No wonder the electorate’s trust in our political elite is at an all-time low.

Then again, perhaps we are the fools for putting up with such obvious vote-chasing tactics for so long?