by Alison Flood)
A female prisoner who has been left "in despair" by the ban on books being sent to inmates is preparing a legal challenge to the Ministry of Justice, according to the BBC.
Highly educated and epileptic, the claimant known as BGJ – currently serving a life sentence – is working with lawyers on a case attempting to overturn the recent policy which prevents prisoners from receiving small packages, reported Newsnight's political editor Emily Maitlis.
"[She] is described by her legal team as 'in despair' over the policy, which prevents her from accessing reading matter," said Maitlis. "Her lawyers say the effects of this policy are particularly hard felt by women and by those on life sentences who depend on what they receive from the outside world to keep them motivated and incentivised."
The Howard League for Penal Reform has also been contacted by prisoners who have been denied access to books, chief executive Frances Crook said this morning, and is considering bringing further legal action against the MoJ on their behalf. The organisation, which broke the news of the blanket ban on families sending in small items to prisoners, is also working with human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC on potential action against justice secretary Chris Grayling for acting "unlawfully and irrationally".
The BBC said that lawyers representing BGJ had been told by the MoJ that they were too late, "as you are only allowed to appeal against a policy within a three-month period, which in this case has now passed". But according to Maitlis, the lawyers are preparing to challenge that rule, since even though the new policy was introduced in November, it has been implemented slowly across the prison network, and only affected their client in the past 10 days.
Meanwhile the Howard League and leading British authors including Carol Ann Duffy, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Mark Haddon have attacked a letter from the National Offender Management Service's chief executive Michael Spurr, which they say effectively refuses a meeting to discuss the issue.
The letter, which the Howard League has made public , sees Spurr write to Duffy, Crook, McEwan and others that there have been "no changes in the availability of books in prisons", and that "allowing parcels to be sent in unrestricted would be operationally unmanageable and would lead to a significant risk of drugs and other illicit items being smuggled into prisons".
He also writes that "you have asked about the possibility of meeting the secretary of state to discuss your concerns further". "The rationale for the changes has been set out in detail in the secretary of state's open letter to the poet laureate," writes Spurr. "In the letter, the secretary of state invited the poet laureate to visit a prison library and to take the opportunity to talk to staff. I understand, however, that the invitation was not taken up."
But Duffy said it was "atrocious that government ministers will not even meet with the Howard League to discuss our concerns", and that she did not want "to engage in a media stunt with the Lord Chancellor in visiting a prison, as I, like most writers, have already visited prisons and indeed wrote the foreword to an edition of the PEN Prisoners Writing Anthology".
"What I and other authors want to see is government ministers taking our concerns seriously and engaging positively and publicly with the Howard League and English PEN to address the issues we have raised," said the poet laureate.
Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, called the response "a snub to some of the country's most outstanding authors who have demonstrated their commitment to the campaign", and Crook added that "it appears that the ministry of justice wishes to shut its eyes and ears to what has become an international scandal".
"I am afraid it is not so easy to shelve our campaign. If ministers … will not hear our case, and rely on repeating dubious justifications that have been comprehensively trashed in the media, then we will look to take our concerns to Downing Street," she said.