- Created: Tuesday, 14 August 2018 14:14
- Written by George Coombs
Between 2 and 18 July 2018, five former prisoners from HMP Lewes in East Sussex stood trial for their alleged participation in a protest in October 2016. Prisoners’ rights activist and FRFI supporter George Coombs attended the trial throughout and has written this eyewitness report for us.
On Monday 16 July I arrived at court, after the prosecution had spent two weeks putting forward its case against Ross Macpherson, Stephen Goodwin, Dave Carlin, Shane Simpson, and John Udy. The defence had been due to begin on the Monday but on the Friday before, after the end of the prosecution case, legal arguments resulted in the throwing out of all the main charges of mutiny, violent disorder and threatening behaviour.
For the two previous weeks the testimony had all been from prison officers who were working when the disturbance occurred. Even without the legal arguments against all the main charges, the case was not well put together. Several officers only knew one of the prisoners by name or sight; in one instance, it emerged that the name of the defendant was given to the officer testifying by someone else. There were also instances of an officer’s notes being inconsistent with subsequent written statements.
The incident which the trial was dealing with took place on 29 October 2016 against a background of a restricted regime due to staff shortages, poor hygiene standards and a lack of any meaningful rapport between the system and prisoners. It lasted for six hours until members of the ‘Tornado Team’ and National Tactical Response Group regained control. In court it was put to one Tornado squad witness that an officer had kicked a defendant in the face. The response was ‘absolutely no way’. I heard someone in the main body of the court say ‘liar.’
Not surprisingly, the prosecution focussed on the specific alleged behaviour of the defendants, with any discussion of possible systemic underlying causes mentioned only in passing. However these underlying causes were never totally out of the picture, with the trial sometimes delayed due to problems with prisoner transport, while bleak prison conditions were significantly highlighted when one defendant asked the judge to email the prison holding him to ask them to enable him to take a shower.
After the defence closed, legal arguments led to a ruling that there was no clear, valid evidence of a prison mutiny; instead this was a specific incident on one wing of the prison. The violent disorder charges were also dropped, as there has to be proof that at least three people were involved and there was no clear proof of this.
The threatening behaviour charge was also dropped as this has to involve actions and not just words. Emphasis was placed on one defendant having threatened to ‘...gouge someone’s eyes out’; unpleasant though this is (and the press made much of it) it is still words and not actions.
After all this, the only remaining charge was criminal damage, for which Ross was sentenced to an additional two years in prison and Stephen to 18 months. This case has been a complete waste of public money on court time, legal representation and transporting prisoners and prison officer witnesses, given that the counts in the indictment did not stand up to legal scrutiny.
While I’ve been at Hove Crown Court I have spoken to defendants on bail and their friends and families, all of whom were concerned about the treatment of prisoners at HMP Lewes. If the trial hadn’t ended when it did, at least one of the defendants was planning to bring up the underlying issues as part of their defence case – poor staffing, limited regime in the prison, no CCTV cameras etc. All these have been issues for a long time. Yet nothing is done and the question has to be why not?
HMP Lewes was built in 1853 as the county prison for Sussex. Its first prisoners included Finnish grenadiers taken prisoner of war in the Crimean War. Following the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising it was one of several prisons in England where those combatants who were taken prisoner but not executed in Kilmainham gaol were sent.
A hundred years on, Lewes housed 640 remand and sentenced adult male prisoners, although its official capacity was 617. C wing is the largest wing, containing 150 prisoners. In 2014 prison officer Kim Lennon warned publicly that conditions at the prison were deteriorating, drugs and violence were rife and that she feared for the safety of both prisoners and staff. Instead of heeding her warnings, the prison dismissed Ms Lennon from her job, since when she has continued to highlight problems at Lewes prison, including attending the recent trial to support the prisoners who had been made scapegoats for the failings of the system.
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 265 August/September 2018