Fighting prison censorship – whose side is the Ombudsman on?

As the furore around the so-called ‘prison book ban’ rumbles on in the media, FRFI also continues to battle against censorship. The variations on reasons given for not permitting our paper into prisons are seemingly endless.

The latest problem we have is with HMP Whitemoor, which has suddenly decided that there is some kind of problem, ostensibly not with the content of the paper, but with the address from which it is mailed. Obviously, we will be complaining about this, and encourage readers to also write to the governor of Whitemoor about this bureaucratic interference (see below).

One of the avenues through which prisoners can further complaints about treatment in prison is the Prison and Probation Ombudsman; indeed, the government relies on the existence of the Ombudsman when criticised for withdrawing legal aid from prisoners, arguing that it is not necessary to go to court when there is an independent arbiter who can look into complaints.

The quality of the Ombudsman’s investigations into prisoners’ complaints is very variable, with the occasional outstanding, scathing critique of the system coupled with repeated, frustrating incidence of caseworkers conducting no investigation at all but simply repeating back to the prisoner the version of events provided by prison staff and consequently rejecting the complaints.

In April we received a copy of such a letter from an Ombudsman’s caseworker, rejecting a complaint from a Full Sutton prisoner who was refused his FRFI in October 2013.

We were aware of problems at the time, and had written to complain to the governor, security governor and deputy director of the Prison Service, none of whom had replied. We had been told by prisoners that the ban on this occasion concerned a specific article; however, despite numerous inquiries and complaints, no-one told us or the prisoners which article it was, and we still do not know. The Ombudsman’s caseworker clearly does not know either, writing in her letter:

‘The edition of the FRFI newspaper received on 4 October 2013 was stopped due to the content of an article contained in the issue. The Intelligence and Security Manager at Full Sutton said that there were two reasons why the newspaper was stopped. Firstly, the newspaper came through an incorrect supplier. Secondly, the content of an article inside the paper was felt inappropriate due to it containing racist and fascist comments. The decision to stop the newspaper was made by the governor. I was also informed that the newspaper had been placed into your stored property as it had been deemed inappropriate and could not be issued to you. I was therefore unable to view the article in question.’

This breathtaking lack of any proper investigation is in stark contrast into a well-reasoned decision by the Ombudsman a decade earlier, upholding a similar complaint by prisoner Chris Tierney. Then Ombudsman Stephen Shaw included this summary in his annual report for 2002/03:

‘Mr C (10622/02) complained that he had been refused access to an edition of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (FRFI) newspaper, published by the Revolutionary Communist Group. He had been told the particular edition of the newspaper had been stopped because it was “not suitable due to its very strong political and racist views”. He was also told that the newspaper contained derogatory comments about the Prison Service and was therefore not suitable for issue… that the publication contained “anti-Muslim and general society issues”...

‘I examined the articles contained in this edition of FRFI. I saw no articles which could be termed as “anti-Muslim”. In fact, it was an anti-racist publication. I considered it nothing less than fanciful to suggest that FRFI would “compromise the racial policy of the Prison Service,” as suggested by Prison Service HQ…I had no hesitation in upholding Mr C’s complaint.’

We have written to the current Ombudsman Nigel Newcomen, stating that the suggestion that any content in FRFI could be described as ‘racial’ or ‘fascist’ is both ridiculous and highly offensive to our writers, supporters and subscribers, and demanding a full and proper investigation into the complaint.

We will continue to fight all censorship of FRFI. As former political prisoner Mo Riaz wrote:

‘They have been trying this for years. FRFI is the only paper prisoners look forward to receiving and is the only one that regards them as human beings deserving of the rights and privileges that come with that. Keep up the good work. You must be doing something right for them to want to ban you!’

Write letters of complaint to: Damian Evans – Governor, HMP Whitemoor, Longhill Road, March PE15 0PR about the prison’s refusal to let in the last issue of FRFI (#238)

And to: Nigel Newcomen, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, PO BOX 70769, London SE1P 4XY This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. about the failure of the Ombudsman to carry out a proper investigation into Full Sutton’s withholding of FRFI in October 2013. Quote reference 60279/2014. (See Fighting censorship in prisons on our website for a copy of our letter of complaint.)

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 239 June/July 2014

 

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