Labour government's latest sentencing plans

FRFI 172 April / May 2003

The prison system has been awash with rumours that the next Criminal Justice Act, currently at the Bill stage, contains a response by the government to overcrowding which will result in prisoners being automatically released half-way through their sentences, instead of having to apply for parole. In fact, although there are seeds of truth in this rumour, the Criminal Justice Bill is not a response to overcrowding and its provisions are likely to result in yet another steep increase in the number of people serving lengthy prison sentences. NICKI JAMESON reports.

‘Custody plus’ will replace all short prison sentences of under 12 months. It consists of a short period in custody of up to three months, followed by a longer period of probation supervision (minimum of six months). The court can attach any of a long list of specific requirements to the supervision part of the sentence. If both the court and the person being sentenced agree, the prison part of the sentence can be served as ‘intermittent custody’.

Determinate sentences
As the rumours have suggested, people convicted of non-violent offences and sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment or more will be released automatically on licence half way through their sentence. However, what has been far less well publicised within prison is that the whole of the second half of the sentence will be spent on licence, with the sentencing court able to recommend a vast range of licence conditions. At the moment, prisoners are released either after completing half their sentence (on parole), or two-thirds (at their ‘non-parole date’). They are then on licence until the three-quarters point, and, except in a minority of cases, they then cease to be subject to supervision. In future all determinate sentence prisoners will now be subject to licence conditions up to the expiry of their sentence.

Extended sentences
The Bill introduces a new scheme of sentences for people who are ‘assessed as dangerous’ and are convicted of ‘specified sexual or violent offences’. If the maximum sentence for the offence is less than ten years they will be given an ‘extended sentence’. This is a finite sentence, but has a licence period that is longer than the sentence itself (an extra five years for violent offences and nine years for sexual ones).

Half way through an extended sentence, a prisoner will be able to apply for parole, and they will have further opportunities to do this during the remainder of their sentence, however, if the Parole Board does not agree to their release they will serve the entire custodial sentence.

Imprisonment for public protection/discretionary life sentences
If someone assessed as ‘dangerous’ is convicted of a sexual or violent offence for which the maximum sentence length is ten years or more, s/he will receive either a ‘sentence of imprisonment for public protection’ or a discretionary life sentence. In either case the court will specify a minimum term (similar to the current ‘tariff’ or ‘relevant part’) to be served in custody. After this point the prisoner can only be released if the Parole Board agrees. Ten years after release, those sentenced to imprisonment for public protection will be able to apply to the Parole Board to have their licences rescinded. Those serving discretionary life sentences will be on licence for the rest of their lives.
The net effect of all these measures will be a massive increase in the number of people subject to some form of custody or supervision. In recent years the role of the probation service has been rendered increasingly draconian, and probation officers have virtually ceased to assist with welfare and resettlement, concentrating instead on policing people on licence or community orders. The implementation of the Criminal Justice Bill will be bound to push this trend still further, and the sole function of probation officers will become arranging for anyone considered to be in breach of their licence to be recalled to prison. It is notoriously difficult to appeal against recall decisions, which are shamelessly operated on the basis of ‘guilty until proved innocent’, and the prison population will continue to increase.

Organise against brutality

The segregation unit at Full Sutton maximum security prison in York is once again the focus of complaints concerning staff brutality. This raises serious questions about the treatment of long-term prisoners in segregation units throughout the dispersal system. JOHN BOWDEN, currently at HMP Durham, reports.

Since 1994-5, when the Prison Service instigated a deliberate policy of increased repression against long-term prisoners, the nature of segregation unit regimes throughout the maximum security dispersal system has become brutal and dehumanising. In gaols like Long Lartin, Frankland and Full Sutton control over prisoners in segregation is maintained by physical violence and fear. Staff use a strategy designed to create maximum stress, which in turn is used as a justification for physically attacking prisoners pushed to the very edge of psychological endurance and self-control. Dr Bob Johnson, a doctor for 42 years, and one-time employee of the Prison Service, said in a report concerning the recent beating up of prisoner Charles Bronson in the segregation unit at Full Sutton: ‘Perhaps most troubling, there is the suggestion of an under-culture of physical brutality which may run something as follows – if a prisoner smashes property, then the staff are expected to smash the prisoner.’ This strategy of mentally winding prisoners up and then physically beating them when they react is a strong characterising feature of all dispersal system segregation units at the moment.

In 1994 FRFI highlighted the complaints of prisoners in the Full Sutton segregation unit who were experiencing what amounted to a regime of terror. A gang of eight to ten prison officers were routinely dragging prisoners from their cells and systematically beating them, largely as a form of group enjoyment. The police are currently investigating fresh complaints about staff brutality in the Full Sutton segregation unit, which prior to any investigation of their own, the prison authorities have predictably refuted.

During the early days of the dispersal system some of the most high-profile rebellions (Parkhurst 1969, Hull 1976, etc) were provoked by ill-treatment of prisoners in segregation. The cumulative effect of those uprisings was a principle factor in achieving fundamental changes to the running of segregation units in long-term prisons. Since 1994-5, however, and as a result of then Home Secretary Michael Howard’s massive onslaught on the rights of prisoners, prison staff have seized back the power to run segregation units as places of fear and gratuitous brutality.

Prison officer culture has always been imbued with the view that control should be maintained by the threat and use of physical violence. In the hidden world of the segregation unit that view is given open and free expression. In some segregation units so all-pervasive is the violence that prisoners literally live in fear for their lives.

Following the arrest and conviction in 2000 of prison officers for brutalising prisoners in segregation at Wormwood Scrubs, Director General of Prisons, Martin Narey publicly declared that in future such behaviour would be rooted out and punished. In 2002 I spoke with Narey and described to him the behaviour of staff in the segregation unit at Long Lartin. He did absolutely nothing about my complaint. In her most recent report on Long Lartin, the Chief Inspector of Prisons Ann Owers absurdly praised the ‘professionalism’ of staff running the segregation unit. This despite a recent successful legal action by prisoner Billy Whitfield who was awarded thousands of pounds in compensation following repeated beatings in the Long Lartin segregation unit. The establishment obviously measures prison officer ‘professionalism’ by the degree to which they’re able to subdue ‘difficult’ prisoners.

During the 1970s and 1980s a high degree of solidarity and organisation amongst long-term prisoners ensured that segregation unit staff were ever mindful of the potential for collective unrest and were therefore, to a degree, circumspect in their treatment of prisoners. Today that wariness has gone and abuse is widespread and routine.

It took long-term prisoners in Britain decades of struggle and sacrifice to shift the balance of power slightly in their favour and stop the brutalisation and murder of prisoners in segregation. That struggle must be pursued again by the current generation of long-term prisoners if the thugs and sadists who now run places like the Full Sutton segregation unit are to be stopped.
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In FRFI 170 we reported on the judgment of the Prisons Ombudsman following an attempt by Erlestoke prison to ban FRFI. When FRFI 171 arrived at Kingston prison, the authorities there attempted to ban it on almost identically spurious grounds. Larkin Publications threatened legal action against the prison if it did not issue our subscribers with their copies of FRFI. This resulted in an immediate climb-down. We will respond in the same way to all attempts to ban FRFI.


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