Blunkett makes life mean life

FRFI 173 June / July 2003

On 7 May Home Secretary David Blunkett announced plans to set lengthy fixed minimum periods for prisoners convicted of murder. He has been seething with anger ever since the House of Lords ruled last November that the then procedure was incompatible with human rights legislation, and this is his revenge. Having lost the power to overrule individual judicial decisions, Blunkett has decided instead to exert wholesale demagogic control. NICKI JAMESON reports.

Murder convictions result in the imposition of a mandatory life sentence, and in the past, once this had been passed, the trial judge made a recommendation for the ‘tariff’, the minimum period to be served before release could be considered. This was then scrutinised by the Lord Chief Justice, who might make a different recommendation. The final say lay with the Home Secretary, meaning the ultimate decision was a political one. Following a lengthy legal challenge by life sentence prisoner Anthony Anderson, the Lords ruled that this procedure was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Under Blunkett’s proposed amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, the lowest tariff for murder will now be 15 years. This means it will no longer be possible, in cases such as those where victims of domestic violence are convicted of the murder of their violent partners, for very low tariffs to be given in order to reflect the specific circumstances.

The minimum period then rises to 30 years for those convicted of murders:

• of police or prison officers,
• involving firearms or explosives,
• for gain (ie in the course of a burglary or robbery, or contract killing),
• ‘intended to defeat ends of justice’, such as killing a witness,
• on grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation,
• single counts of sadistic or sexual murder of an adult,
• multiple ‘ordinary’ murders of a type that would otherwise have a starting point of 15 years.

And to 50 years (in effect a ‘whole life’ tariff) for those convicted of:

• two or more murders that show a ‘high degree of premeditation, involve abduction of the victim or are sexual or sadistic’,
• murder of a child following abduction, or involving sexual or sadistic conduct,
• a second count of murder,
• terrorist murder, that is to say, killing with a political motive.

Although public outrage at premeditated, sexual or sadistic murder is totally comprehensible, the setting of the minimum sentence so high is draconian. Tariffs are minimum terms, not maximum ones. After they have expired, lifers can only be released if the Parole Board agrees they do not pose a risk of committing further violence, and very few are actually released at the point at which their tariff expires. Most are detained longer, some far longer, on this basis of perceived risk.

The final say on release was until recently also the prerogative of the Home Secretary, but in May 2002 the European Court ruled it was a breach of human rights for a politician to decide a prisoner’s release date.

Blunkett is an unashamed populist. Before the Anderson case had even concluded, he announced that it was his view that ‘life means life’ and that if the judgement went against him, he would simply change the law. His public stance of taking on the old-order judges and lords is playing to the crowd of the worst type, setting himself up as the ‘common man’ against the bewigged old fuddy-duddies who are out of touch with reality. And, of course, such a characterising of the judiciary is completely reasonable – for years the working class has suffered in court at the hands of ancient, unaccountable, unknowledgeable buffoons with the power to sentence them to long periods in prison. But the Blunkett solution is not to implement democratic reform of the legal system or increase trial by jury. He has no problem with judges when they are handing out long sentences; he only worries about them when they tell him it is unlawful for the government to starve asylum seekers or retain personal control over the release of prisoners. His response is not that of the reformer – it is that of the thug, the demagogue, the politician who accrues all power to his person and office and leaves none to any other institution outside his absolute control.

Free Kong Kok Mun!

Since the end of April, there have been daily demonstrations outside Canterbury prison, calling for the release of Kong Kok Mun (known as Jacky), who would have been released by now, had he not fallen foul of a ruling that the time he spent in prison awaiting trial does not count against his sentence because he was being held as an immigration detainee, and was technically ‘on bail’ for the minor criminal charge he faced.

The demonstrations were organised by Jacky’s partner, Colin Avis, after he had unsuccessfully explored every conceivable angle from which to judicially challenge the decision.

The public and local press have been very sympathetic, with many people genuinely shocked that the three months Jacky spent in Brixton prison simply do not count in the way remand time normally does. But some members of Canterbury prison staff have been less impressed and on 30 April Colin was assaulted outside the prison.

For further information contact
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Campaigning against prison slavery
In pimping prisoners’ labour to greedy companies, the Home Office relies on assuring, not only cheapness and reliability, but also anonymity. Few of the companies exploiting forced prison labour would be comfortable with their employees and customers knowing about it. A primary aim of the Campaign Against Prison Slavery is therefore to secure reliable, up-to-date information on these companies – which companies are contracting the work, what its nature is, and how much (or rather how little) prisoners are being paid – and to target and expose them. The very fact that the secrecy can be broken and prison slavery be put on the agenda will in itself have an effect on the Home Office’s ability to sell prisoners’ labour.

We are already finding that this is a highly controversial issue with the public, and we have had a great deal of support. These are capitalist companies who care about the illusion of self-image, they don’t want to be linked to slavery, they don’t want customers boycotting them, and they certainly don’t want people picketing their stores.

At the first Campaign Against Prison Slavery conference on 1 February it was decided to hold a Day of Action to highlight the use of prison slavery by the large high-street chain Wilkinson’s, who despite trying to portray themselves as a company with ethics, are in fact a ruthless anti-union one, who run their stores with minimal staff whose wages they have recently cut.

The Wilkinson’s Day of Action was held on 5 April, with pickets of the Nottingham, Worthing, Leeds, Birmingham, and Luton stores. We distributed thousands of leaflets, put up posters, held up banners and placards exposing Wilkinson’s and generally made our presence felt. All the actions were extremely successful in terms of public interest and support, and Wilkinson’s management were clearly very upset by them.

Encouraged by the support, more Wilkinson’s pickets were quickly organised – on May Day in Leeds, Birmingham, Stratford and Blackwood (Gwent) on 3 May in Worthing, and on 10 May at Headingley. More are planned: for example, on Saturday 24 June there will be a national picket of Wilkinson’s in Leeds city centre, which we’d like as many people as possible to attend. The Birmingham group plans to picket Winson Green prison to highlight the issue, and the Leeds group hopes to picket Armley.

There are Wilkinson’s stores all over the country, so it is easy enough for activists to organise their own actions. Just a few people with leaflets and placards helps to highlight what this company is doing. Let’s keep up the pressure.

We are already getting information from prisoners on other companies exploiting prison slavery. For example, we know Virgin is using prisoners at Lewes to pack headphones for their airline, while Ford prisoners are doing laundry for Butlins. The company who were using prisoners to fold paper party hats at Full Sutton was the Bishop Auckland firm, Thompsons Xmas Company, but prisoners there are currently working for Ard Electronics (tel: 01282 683000). Industrial Rubber plc (Fielder Drive, Fareham, Hants; tel: 01329 287955) is exploiting prisoners at several prisons, using them to do particularly mind-numbing work trimming rubber mouldings.

A relatively recent development in the prison slavery market is the use of prisoners to operate computers. In Rye Hill, for example, internet company Summit Media pays prisoners £9 per week, but charges its customers over £50,000 for two to three weeks’ work. On its website Summit Media stresses its reliability, but this sits incongruously with its use of slave labour. Readers may recall the fuss a couple of years ago when data from the 1901 census was posted on the internet; people were keen to find out what their ancestors were up to and the site was proving hugely popular. However it was quickly closed down when it was discovered that the data it contained was worthless – hardly surprising considering prisoners had been forced to input it!

There’s a lesson to be learned from this: prison labour is only exploitable because it is judged reliable by greedy companies. By joining together in the Campaign Against Prison Slavery, activists on both sides of the bars can hopefully change things and reject prison slavery and the Prison Industrial Complex.
If you have information on companies using prison labour and/or would like to get involved in the campaign, please get in touch.

Mark Barnsley

Campaign Against Prison Slavery,
The Cardigan Centre, Cardigan Road, Leeds, LS6 1LJ
Double indemnity
Since the European Court of Human Rights ruled last summer in the case of Ezeh and Connors that it was unlawful for prison governors to add extra days onto prisoners’ sentences as a disciplinary punishment, there has been a sharp increase in the use of cellular confinement as an alternative.

The number of days’ cellular confinement that can be given has been increased from 14 to 21. In addition, a range of other new punishments has been made available to prison governors. There is a new punishment of being removed from your wing or unit for up to 28 days, and the maximum stoppage of earnings has increased from 42 to 84 days for a single offence.

The Prison Service could not be seen to be weakened by the European Court ruling and it came as no surprise that as soon as governors stopped being allowed to add extra time onto a prisoner’s sentence for atrocities such as refusing a direct order or having an extra sachet of butter, additions were made to the existing bag of tricks at their disposal.

However, with the introduction of independent adjudicators to try disciplinary offences previously dealt with by governors, the Prison Service has far from lost its most effective weapon, as adjudicators can give all the same range of newly strengthened punishments that governors can, in addition to being able to give punishments of up to 42 extra days imprisonment.

Cellular confinement has, for many years, left a sour taste in the mouths of prisoners, who see it as a way of the system extracting a pound of flesh when the evidence to support the charge is very weak. Although the finding of guilt may be overturned on appeal and struck from the prisoner’s record, the punishment will already have been served. Under the new system, governors decide whether an offence is likely to merit a punishment of added days and should therefore be referred to an independent adjudicator. With an increased number of days’ cellular confinement, and a new non-retractable punishment of ‘removal from the wing’, many prisoners will be wondering whether, in cases where the evidence is weak, governors will avoid referring them to the adjudicators and will deal with them themselves instead.

John Shelley, HMP Whitemoor


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