Chris Grayling's decision to allow prison governors to ban books from being sent to their inmates is unforgivable

What motivated Chris Grayling to go into politics? I’m guessing it was a genuinely altruistic impulse – albeit one that, as with most politicians, was tinged with vanity and a desire to ‘matter’. He has acquired, now, some modicum of power. As Justice Secretary he runs our courts and our prisons. His domain is smaller than health or welfare in terms of what we spend. But it is vital. Because he governs the line that divides us as civilised people from those who are barbarians – he is the guardian of decency when decency is most difficult. How we treat those whose actions we deplore says a great deal indeed about our relative capacity to be good ourselves.

That’s why his decision to allow prison governors to ban books from being sent to their inmates is so unsettling and so unforgivable. It is the politics of a thuggish nation, not a decent one. We lock people up because they are criminals. I am no friend to the chattering liberalism that robs the poor and the vulnerable of their agency by ascribing their criminality to their environment. We make decisions. We pay the price. But that price should not be extracted at the expense of our common understanding of what it means to improve. Criminal justice in Britain is not, nor should it be, about how to most brutally repay the bad for their misdeeds. It is about other things too – rehabilitation, the chance at repentance and, therefore, at forgiveness. We all know that improvement requires hard work. Giving up smoking requires will power. That promotion demands longer hours. Being good, when once you’ve been bad, necessitates a change within. And reading helps us to broaden and better our inner self. It is part of the process of self-reflection that makes us fully grown. And no-one, bar the children we so desperately and correctly push to read, needs that more than prisoners.

The only justification for Grayling’s choice – and yes, it is a choice – that I can see is one of money. Searching parcels to prevent drugs entering the prison system means paying for people to do so. By allowing prisons to simply stop allowing in parcels – containing, for many, the written word and a passport to redemption – we can save money. Simple.

But that is the sensibility of the accountant in a world that requires the instincts of a priest. I can’t give Chris Grayling a cost-benefit breakdown of the savings achieved by encouraging souls to become gentler through engagement with literature. And to do so would be to miss the point. Even one life changed, one soul improved, one less crime committed in the future because a young man (it is mostly men) has seen a different set of possibilities via the insight of a writer, is worth the cost. Ministering to society’s outcasts requires patience, firmness and a genuine desire to make them (and our society through them) better. Grayling appears to lack that desire. Or, if he had it once, to have forgotten it.

It should come as little surprise that the Secretary of State is a little deaf to the power and the importance of books. His chosen medium appears to be TV. He famously compared modern Britain to the drug riddled US TV drama The Wire – to howls of outrage from anyone who had both seen that show and left their house at any point in the last decade. And a couple of years ago he bemoaned our ‘Jeremy Kyle’ generation – comparing millions of young men to the feckless half-wits who appear on ITV2 during the day. All well and good. But I have a suggestion for Grayling.

When it comes to the young men in his charge – many of whom are indeed the products of a culture that lacks, above all else, any culture – perhaps he could help them avoid developing his weakness for TV? If he really needs to save money, perhaps he could take away and sell the televisions, Playstations, X-boxes and DVD players that the prison system uses to bribe inmates into sullen passivity? And perhaps he could use that money to provide a steady flow of literature into the cells? That would be the kind of thing that a real conservative politician – motivated by altruism, firm but optimistic – might do.