Grayling steps up populist attack on prisoners’ rights

Prisoners’ rights are once again under sustained attack. In a series of recent announcements, right-wing Conservative Justice Minister Chris Grayling has hit out at prisoners’ access to legal aid and entitlement to earn ‘privileges’ within the system. Nicki Jameson reports.

Grayling replaced Ken Clarke as Justice Minister in September 2012. While Clarke had always been on the ‘wet’ side of the Tory Party, Grayling immediately announced his intention to be ‘a tough Justice Secretary’. It was no coincidence that his first media interview was with the notoriously right wing, anti-immigrant, anti-prisoner Daily Mail, where he explained that, unlike Clarke, he had no interest in reducing the prison population (other than by arranging the swifter deportation of ‘foreign criminals’):

‘Am I planning to reduce the number of prison places? No I’m not. I do not want to set a target to reduce the prison population. What I do want to do is bring down the cost of prison. The whole philosophy I will bring to the department is getting more for less.’

And he set out his stall for the clampdown to come: ‘Prison is not meant to be a place that people enjoy being in. I don’t [want to] see prisoners in this country sitting in cells watching the Sunday afternoon match on Sky Sports.’ Of course the Mail loved this, headlining the article: ‘I’ll stop our jails being like holiday camps, says new minister for justice’.

Like all his recent statements, Grayling’s Mail interview contained a mixture of exaggerated accounts of the laxness and luxury of the system and threats to axe fundamental rights, alongside a complete lack of recognition that the previous Labour government – far from presiding over some holiday camp prison regime – had already carried out a sizeable number of the ‘reforms’ (aka attacks) which he bullishly boasted the ConDems would now undertake.

Cutting legal aid for prison law

On 3 April 2013, Grayling announced that legal aid would be cut to stop prisoners taking ‘unnecessary legal cases’, claiming that this would save £4m a year and cut the number of cases by 11,000. Most of the examples he cited of ‘unnecessary’ claims about prison treatment are in fact already ineligible for legal aid – this cut having been passed by the outgoing Labour government and brought into force by the ConDems in July 2010. Still, why let the truth get in the way of a good rant? Especially when attacking prisoners’ access to the legal process is an easy way of deflecting attention from the government’s wholesale attack on all forms of legal aid for the entire working class (see ‘Legal aid cuts to match austerity’ )

The Labour government changes to prison law also included the introduction of a ‘fixed fee’ system, which reduced the amount of money lawyers could claim, and hence the work they could do, on prison cases. Grayling has now announced a ‘consultation’ on further cuts, which will effectively mean an end to funding for all prison law cases, other than those involving oral advocacy at a Parole Board panel or disciplinary hearing in front of an ‘Independent Adjudicator’. Prisoners will therefore no longer be able to get legal assistance for:

• disciplinary hearings in front of prison governors (at which legal representation is almost never permitted);

• categorisation (including the highly restrictive Category A);

• segregation;

• referral to a Close Supervision Centre;

• progress through the life-sentence system (other than directly via the Parole Board).

The Association of Prison Lawyers and other such groups are challenging these cuts; however their opposition to date consists almost entirely of writing submissions to the ‘consultation’ (despite it being apparent to all that they will be ignored), asking to meet with the Legal Aid Agency, Ministry of Justice etc, and holding meetings at which the assembled legal aid practitioners express a mixture of bewilderment at their livelihoods coming under attack and sadness that the philanthropic assistance they provide to ‘vulnerable prisoners’ will be brought to an end.

With a few honourable exceptions, there appears to be virtually no recognition amongst prison lawyers that the attack on them and their clients is part of a general ideological offensive against the working class, which has been underway for the past six years or more. Still less is there any understanding that the rights to legal representation which are currently being rolled back were won in the first place almost entirely by the actions of militant prisoners in the 1970s and 1980s, who mounted repeated protests against the abuses in the system and took their own cases to court, both to challenge these abuses and to gain the right to be legally represented and advised in relation to their prison treatment.

Toughening up the privileges system

On 30 April, Grayling announced changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (IEPS), a divide-and-rule system which has operated since 1995, when it was introduced by then Home Secretary Michael Howard as part of the backlash against the temporary liberalisation of the prison system which followed the 1990 Strangeways uprising.

Again, the public face of Grayling’s offensive consisted of a mixture of the punitive and the spurious, with much publicity around his declarations that prisoners on the Basic level of IEPS should not be allowed in-cell television – a restriction which has always been in place.

Currently there are three IEPS levels: Basic, Standard and Enhanced. The revised scheme will have an extra level, Entry. All newly sentenced or recalled prisoners will be on Entry level for the first two weeks; their privileges, including access to private cash, will be restricted and all adult male prisoners will be required to wear prison uniform whilst on Entry level. At the end of the Entry level period, prisoners who do not co-operate with the regime will drop to Basic level and stay there until they do. Those who co-operate will move up to Standard. The whole scheme will also be tightened up to increase the number of prisoners on Basic and make it harder to progress to Standard or Enhanced.

There was also a lot of media attention around the announcement that prisoners in private prisons would no longer have access to subscription TV channels and that all prisoners would be prevented from watching adult DVDs. The very fact that any prisoner has ever had access to either induces apoplexy amongst the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade, and the Conservative Party, along with the Mail and Daily Telegraph, has been complaining about it since 2009.

The reality is that Grayling is cutting off his nose to spite his face. Private prison contractors, such as Serco and G4S, which run the majority of Britain’s private prisons, tender to the state on the basis that they can house prisoners cheaply and safely. Consequently, cells in Serco-run Lowdham Grange or Dovegate prisons, for instance, are equipped with TVs with a wide range of channels, as well as with individual private telephones. At the newly-built Thameside prison in south London, cells also contain computer terminals connected to an internal prison intranet through which prisoners can contact the ironically-named ‘Catch 22’ charity, which is contracted to run the prison’s Offender Management Unit and deal with processes such as categorisation and release on electronic tagging. All of this technology keeps prisoners contained and occupied, requires private prisons to hire fewer staff and keeps down the costs to the state.

More to come

These announcements are just the start of a sustained attack on prisoners’ hard-won rights. At the beginning of May, prisoners in high security prisons were told that they could no longer have photos taken with visiting family members, as had previously been permitted. Grayling also announced future plans to pay private companies to monitor anyone imprisoned for even a few days for at least a year, with bans on moving house during this period and GPS satellite tracking technology to keep tabs on released prisoners.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 233 June/July 2013


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