Actors and authors gather in book protest outside Pentonville Prison

Writers protest about a prisoners right to receive books outside Pentonville Prison London on 28.03.

Writers protest about a prisoners right to receive books outside Pentonville Prison London on 28.03.14. Pictured speaking Samuel West - Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Authors, poets and actors gathered outside Pentonville Prison on Friday to protest against the Chris Grayling’s decision to ban the sending of books to inmates.

Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy was joined by playwright Sir David Hare, actor Samuel West and many others who read to a crowd that gathered outside the institution in Holloway Road.

It came just days after a letter from writers including Jeffrey Archer and Salman Rushdie was sent to the Justice Secretary condemning the policies restricting items such as books and even fresh underwear being sent in to prisons.

The decision has even been labelled a “mistake” by chief of prisons Nick Hardwick, who last month published a damning report on the state of HMP Pentonville and its library.

Highbury resident Samuel West, who is set to appear alongside Merl Streep in Suffragette this year, said: “It’s very easy to think of the world as prisoners and the rest of us but what we forget is that when they are released these will be our neighbours and our colleagues – do we want them to have read fewer or more books?

“There’s only really one question for Chris Grayling, is this going to lead to less reading in prison or more?

“The other thing is that they expect them to buy books or go to the prison library which is almost certainly badly stocked.

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“If a prisoner works all week they may only get £10 a week, how are they expected to be able to afford books?”

While a report made from a surprise inspection at Pentonville last year found improvements and a well stocked library, it also concluded that access was inadequate due staff shortages and planned activities clashing with opening hours.

Cllr Greg Foxsmith, who works as a criminal lawyer, said: “I regularly go in to prisons so I know how important reading is for rehabilitation.

“Even if you’re a prisoner you’re still a citizen and it’s disgraceful not to be able to have your own underwear.

“Nelson Mandella knew the value of reading his books and it’s astonishing to think that during apartheid prisoners arguably had greater access to books than they will do under these changes.”

In a letter responding to Carol Ann Duffy, the Justice Secretary wrote: “Our prison staff fight a constant battle to prevent illicit items, such as drugs, extremist materials, mobile phones, SIM cards and pornography getting into our prisons.

“We have even seen drugs concealed inside a hollowed out Weetabix. Only a few days ago a crude knife was found concealed inside a toothbrush in one of our prisons.

“So I’m afraid that it is inconceivable that we could impose the additional operational burden on our staff of carrying out detailed assessments of an unlimited number of parcels coming into prisons.”