Prisoners’ rights under attack

Since Labour came to power in 1997 the prison population of England and Wales has increased from 61,000 to 81,748. The government has created more than 3,000 new criminal offences and totally changed the sentencing framework so that an unprecedented number of prisoners are serving indeterminate sentences. Britain has more life-sentenced prisoners than Germany, France, Russia and Turkey put together. The prison system is full to bursting and conditions are worsening. Prisoners have few legal tools with which to defend themselves but have at times been able to bring successful court actions against the prison system’s worst excesses. Labour’s Justice Minister Jack Straw and the Prison Officers’ Association want to stop them doing this. Nicki Jameson reports.

It was Straw who, in 1998 when Home Secretary, introduced the Human Rights Act (HRA), incorporating the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law. As a result, from October 2000 anyone wishing to complain about infringements of the articles of the Convention could do so through domestic courts without having to take their case to the European Court in Strasbourg.

The ECHR is a bourgeois charter and does not contain rights to be fed, clothed, housed or educated; however it provides for basic civil liberties, protecting the rights not to be tortured or subject to arbitrary detention and to have a fair trial, family life and freedom of expression. These have proved of use to prisoners struggling to maintain a level of decent treatment against a punitive and oppressive system. For example, Robert Napier took successful action against the Scottish prison system’s continued use of ‘slopping out’ (being locked in a cell with no toilet facilities except a bucket) and new mothers who had given birth in prison used the HRA to extend their rights to keep their children with them. A series of cases has reduced the executive power of the state to over-rule decisions by the Parole Board or judges on release or length of time to be served and has established the right of prisoners to have parole and disciplinary hearings heard by nominally independent parties (the Parole Board and magistrates) at oral hearings, rather than behind closed doors. There have also been changes to inquest procedure and the inquiries that have to take place when someone dies in custody.

The Labour government now regards the HRA as a millstone around its neck. Tony Blair frequently complained about it and said he wanted to opt out of inconvenient sections, such as the prohibition on detention without trial and even protection from torture. Consequently none of the gains won through legal challenges are ever completely secure and the government endlessly tries to reverse or ignore adverse decisions. In most cases it is reluctantly compelled to implement changes but has totally refused to act on prisoners’ right to vote, despite a European Court ruling against Britain in 2004.

On 8 December 2008 Straw was interviewed by the right-wing Daily Mail about his plans to ‘rebalance’ the Act and make provision of fundamental rights dependent on obedience to the state and the law. Straw said he aimed to ‘generate a debate about whether there should be a declaration of responsibilities and rights which grow together, the kind of rights we are owed and the rights which we owe...It’s about identifying values that bind us and what it is that makes Britain great, that makes the whole of us greater than the sum of its parts.’

The Mail was ecstatic that Straw is now less enthusiastic about the HRA but less keen on the idea that he might replace it with a bill of ‘rights and responsibilities’. In its view ‘the proper response to the Human Rights Act is simply to get rid of the thing, and to derogate from those bits of the European Convention on Human Rights that we don’t like...Trying instead to codify “responsibilities”... would do nothing to resolve the problems’.

The Mail and other tabloid papers, particularly those aimed at a more middle class readership, have long branded the HRA ‘a villain’s charter’ and have devoted endless column inches to lambasting courts that have upheld cases brought by prisoners. The received wisdom is that prisoners, illegal immigrants, paedophiles, travellers, ‘feral youth’ or anyone else loathed by the mouthpieces of middle England are massively protected by human rights law which allows them to live in luxury despite their evil doing. In their view such people should be treated as less than human and stripped of all civil rights.

The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) has long been complicit in feeding lies and half-truths to the press to bolster this attack and the moment Straw’s Mail interview was published, it issued a press statement, welcoming ‘the Justice Secretary’s plans to overhaul the Human Rights Act amidst concerns that it has become a charter for criminals.’ POA Chairman Colin Moses said: ‘For too long prisoners have used the Human Rights Act to undermine prison staff and prevent them from fulfilling their full role...Prisoners have abused the Human Rights Act and use it on a daily basis to achieve their own aims and this was not the purpose of this Act.’

General Secretary Brian Caton added: ‘The compensation culture amongst the mainstream prison population is constantly on the increase at an unbelievable cost to the taxpayer. I hope that Mr Straw takes a serious look at the way some law firms appear to exploit the Human Rights Act to gain compensation for prisoners using the Legal Aid Scheme. Justice has to be seen to be done and currently POA members and employees working in the criminal justice system are getting a raw deal.’

In fact most compensation claims by prisoners have little to do with the HRA and are for common law abuses such as wrongful imprisonment, assault and misfeasance in public office. It is not easy to bring such a claim successfully and the government has recently scandalously capped the compensation payments to innocent prisoners released following the over-turning of wrongful convictions. The picture Caton paints of struggling prison officers failing to get fair treatment while the courts reward litigious prisoners is simply dishonest.

It is not only prisoners who sue for compensation. POA members regularly make claims on the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority and litigate over assaults, illness, stress and the distress of witnessing murders, suicides or riots. The union retains the services of a specialist solicitors’ firm for this express purpose. In 2006 over £1 million was paid to six Cardiff prison officers for trauma caused by finding the mutilated body of a prisoner murdered by his cell-mate, while prisoners who have witnessed suicides and murders rarely receive any counselling, let alone compensation for the trauma.

Straw told the Mail he has ‘given instructions in the services I control to be much tougher on compensation claims, such as for injuries at work.’ The state will therefore be vigorously resisting compensation claims from prison officers and prisoners alike, but rather than standing shoulder to shoulder with prisoners, Caton and the POA side with Straw and attack the prisoners. This total lack of basic solidarity is never challenged by those left groups and trade unions who frequently invite Caton to speak on their platforms, where he champions workers’ rights and boasts of how the POA has stood up to the government’s ban on its right to strike. On 10 January he told the audience at the RMT-organised ‘Conference to discuss the crisis in working-class political representation’ where he was a key speaker: ‘We want trade union and human rights and we won’t get them from this government. We want liberty, justice and peace. I want to see the shackles that currently tie us down broken.’

When prisoners take action to defend their basic human rights, they do so on behalf of all of us. The British state herds working class people into prison in increasing numbers and as the capitalist crisis deepens and more people lose their jobs and homes, there will be yet more imprisonment. At the same time political dissent is being suppressed and the ‘war on terror’ is criminalising entire communities. Trade unionists who take the kind of militant action that the POA says it applauds will also face prison. The fight for prisoners’ rights has always been a key component of struggles for liberty and justice. Any attacks by Jack Straw, the POA, the Daily Mail and other opponents of prisoners’ rights must be strenuously resisted. 

FRFI 207 February / March 2009


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