Bah humbug behind bars

20/12/2013 00:01:00

For the first time this Christmas, people in prison will not be able to receive parcels from their loved ones under petty and mean new rules introduced by the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling.

The new rules, which forbid prisoners from receiving any items in the post unless there are exceptional circumstances, were introduced in November as part of the government’s changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme.

Under the rules, families are prevented from sending in basic items of stationery such as cards, paper or pens to help people in prison keep in touch with their friends and families and wish them a happy Christmas. They are also prevented from sending books and magazines or additional warm clothes and underwear to the prison. Instead people in prison are now forced to pay for these items out of their meagre prison wages to private companies who make a profit from selling goods to prisoners.

The new rules will add to the loneliness and isolation felt by many of the 84,500 people held behind bars in England and Wales. Christmas can be a difficult time for people in prison, held far away from their children, families and friends, often in bleak and overcrowded conditions. The rules will also add to the distress of the 200,000 children in England and Wales who are estimated to have a parent in prison.

While concerns about security are understandable and it is important to have consistent policies across the prison estate, it is also vital that prison policies do not undermine the importance of family contact and rehabilitation or the safe and decent treatment of people in prison.

Since the introduction of the scheme in November the Prison Reform Trust’s advice and information service has responded to over 100 prisoners concerned about its impact on them and their families.

The Prison Reform Trust has been contacted by women prisoners who cannot get hold of enough clean underwear to keep them hygienic during their period. The Ministry of Justice has introduced a fixed limit to the number of items of underwear which men and women may have in their cells, as well as placing restrictions on other items of clothing.

The advice team has also been contacted by many elderly and disabled prisoners who are unable to work and cannot earn enough money to pay for items such as stationery or things to keep them occupied during the long periods of time they are locked in their cells. Previously the families of these prisoners could have sent them a pack of cards, board games, books or magazines to give them something to do. Prisoners are now forced to pay for these items or obtain them from under-resourced prison libraries.

Rates of pay for those working average around £10 a week and can be as little as £2.50 a week for a prisoner who is unable to work - out of which they must pay for phone calls, TV rental, stationery, reading material and any additional food, clothes and toiletries they may need. It costs 20p a minute to call a mobile from a prison phone during the week; and 9p a minute to phone a landline.

The advice team has also heard from prisoners working outside in the community on release on temporary licence, but who are not able to get hold of enough clothes to keep them warm during the cold winter weather. One woman prisoner said:

“I ... have a thick padded jacket which is brown and I am being told this will no longer be allowed. I cannot afford to buy a new coat as I only earn £12 a week as it is. This is not just me but other women who go out to work. Some work in London and will have the same clothes day in and out. Surely if we are working towards and maintaining all our goals we are entitled to a bit of leeway?”

Under the new rules the prison governor's discretion is limited but it is up to individual governors to decide what counts as exceptional. Items allowed could include disability or health aids, items needed for religious observance, stamped addressed envelopes or replacement clothes where there is limited or restricted access to the laundry. The impact of these new rules is being monitored by Ministry of Justice officials responsible for safer custody and ongoing work to reduce self-harm and suicide in prison.

Commenting, Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

"These new mean and petty prison rules just add stress and strain while doing nothing to promote rehabilitation and personal responsibility."


1. The Prison Service Instruction for the new Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (PSI 30/2013) came into force on 1 November 2013. A copy is available at

2. The Prison Reform Trust’s submission to the review of the IEP scheme is available at by clicking here.