- Created: Wednesday, 13 May 2009 16:44
- Written by John Bowden
Thirteen asylum seekers have been put on trial following the fire which destroyed the Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre last February. The centre had been open only a short while and was being run – very badly – by Group 4 security services, whose staff fled the building as soon as the fire started. Some even prevented the police and fire services getting in to evacuate the people inside. The Home Office too was more concerned with ‘securing the perimeter’ to prevent escape, than with ensuring there were no fatalities. The centre had been poorly constructed and had no sprinkler system.
Detainees who could have given witness statements to police or government inquiries about Group 4’s management of the centre and the events on the night of the fire have been hastily deported, while those charged with inciting a disturbance or starting the fire have been ‘allowed’ to remain, so that they can be made an example of.
Last time Group 4 was in court following a disturbance at a detention centre was in 1997, when the trial of nine men charged with riot at Campsfield House collapsed. The court heard and saw evidence that criminal damage to the detention centre was perpetrated not by the detainees but by the Group 4 guards themselves.
Following a remand hearing, a trial date has been set for April 2003. Most of those appearing have been moved to HMP Wormwood Scrubs. This in itself is an appaling dereliction of the Home Office’s duty of care towards the detainees. The latest report on Wormwood Scrubs by the Chief Inspector of Prisons says:
‘Prisoners’ safety is critically dependent upon the first few days in prison (when the risk of self-harm is greatest) and on a prison’s ability to tackle bullying. HMP Wormwood Scrubs may have instituted systems which made prisoners safer from staff; but it had no effective systems to make them safe from one another, or themselves. Though permanent reception staff were committed and well-meaning, they were assisted by untrained staff, and first night and induction procedures were inadequate to ensure that prisoners, especially first-time and foreign national prisoners, were properly supported and informed.’
The Campaign for Justice in the Yarl’s Wood Trial can be contacted on 07786 517379.
Further information can be found at www.closecampsfield.org.uk/
Prisons head for breaking point – again
On 20 September, the prison population stood at 71,894, an increase of 4.659 since the same date last year, and 7,747 above the Certified Normal Accommodation figure.
Statistics released at the end of July showed that over 52,500 prisoners were being held in overcrowded conditions, with the worst overcrowding at Preston prison.
The last time prisons were this overcrowded was in 1994, when Preston again topped the list, being 170% overcrowded, and before that in 1987-8, prior to the mass uprisings that hit the system in 1990, when prisoners could stand no more of being banged up 23-hours-a-day, three or four to a cell built for two. But each fresh overcrowding crisis is on a larger scale, as more and more prisons are constructed. In 1987, the prison population reached 51,300. After the 1990 uprisings and the Criminal Justice Act that followed them, it fell, but immediately began rising again, and was back to the 1987 level by 1994. It is now hitting 72,000, and there are no indications of any foreseeable reverse, particularly as, this time around, all the new prisons have been privately built, creating a powerful incentive for the businesses involved to use their political contacts to lobby for more and more imprisonment.
There are already signs that prisoners have had enough, with disturbances in August at Swaleside, Pentonville, Holme House, Liverpool, Dorchester and Ashfield prisons.
Scottish prisons – inhumane and degrading
The commitment of the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) to the eradication of inhumane physical conditions in some of Scotland’s oldest and most squalid prisons is seriously open to question, even despite censure from the courts.
Following the 1990 Strangeways prison uprising, the prison system in England and Wales completed a comprehensive refurbishment, that eventually saw virtually all cells equipped with toilets and sinks. The SPS pursued no such programme and even today hundreds of prisoners in places such as Saughton in Edinburgh and Barlinnie in Glasgow, the two largest remand jails in Scotland, exist in conditions that have barely changed in over 100 years.
The new Scottish Executive, with a Justice Ministry that now possesses substantial powers to improve prison conditions, has turned its back on the issue of prisoners’ human rights, and the so-called Scottish Prisons Complaints Commissioner has yet to openly criticise conditions at Barlinnie or Saughton.
Inevitably, it is prisoners themselves who have been at the forefront of the struggle to challenge inhumane conditions. On 26 June 2001, Robert Napier, then on remand in Barlinnie, brought a legal action in the Edinburgh Court of Sessions, arguing that the conditions of his detention contravened his human rights.
Napier described being held in a cell that was small, badly ventilated, inadequately lit, contained no toilet or sink, and was in a dilapidated condition. He was forced to share the cell with another prisoner and was allowed few periods of exercise or recreation outside the cell.
Judge Lord MacFadyen upheld Napier’s complaint and said a prima facie case of human rights abuse had been made. He gave prison ministers 72 hours to transfer Napier from Barlinnie to accommodation which complied with human rights legislation. Fearing that the ruling would encourage hundreds of other prisoners to seek a similar remedy in law, the Scottish Executive immediately appealed. The appeal was due to be held immediately, but was then adjourned, while the SPS ‘reviewed’ its policy.
Justice Minister Jim Wallace claimed that the Executive is committed to ending slopping out, but refused to give any deadline or timetable for doing so.
Meanwhile, in places like Saughton, bad conditions are deliberately used as a tool of control and punishment. Of the four main wings, two are designated ‘downgraded’ wings, or punishment units, for prisoners who have failed drug testing or in other ways been deemed undeserving of accommodation that meets minimum standards of human decency. Conditions in one of the ‘downgraded’ wings, A Hall, almost defy description in terms of the squalor and filth. The message to the prisoners there is clear: conform or you will be denied humane conditions. Acquiescence to authority is rewarded by transfer to an ‘upgraded’ wing with in-cell TV and sanitation; non-acquiescence is punished by confinement to stinking cells with slop buckets, broken cell call buttons, decrepit beds and the risk of body vermin. Conditions in A Hall are kept deliberately bad as a negative inducement to conform.
On 5 June 2002, unconvicted prisoners at Saughton rose up and tore the wing to pieces, forcing staff to retreat for about 16 hours. Eventually riot squads retook the wing with maximum violence, beating some of the ‘ringleaders’ all the way to the segregation unit. Around a dozen prisoners have now been charged with prison mutiny and face ten year sentences. The SPS is allowed to breach the human rights of prisoners by forcing them to endure deliberately created squalor and the risk of ill-health, while prisoners who protest at such conditions are prosecuted.
No-trial internment continues
On 30 July, a Special Immigration Appeals Commission panel, chaired by Judge Andrew Collins, ruled that the detention without trial provisions of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (ATCA) are unlawful, as they only apply to foreign nationals. This ruling has not, however, resulted in the release of the nine men currently detained in Belmarsh and Woodhill prisons under the anti-terrorist provisions.
The Terrorism Act (TA) 2000 massively increased the powers of its notorious predecessor, the PTA. The definition of terrorism was extended and a list of banned organisations issued. Any association with or expression of support for such an organisation became punishable by imprisonment. The first name on the banned list is al-Qaida, and half of all the organisations proscribed under the TA are armed Islamic militant groups. It is therefore now extremely easy for the state to gaol alleged ‘terrorists’ without resorting to detention without trial.
However, the post-11 September anti-terrorist measures are not aimed at securing convictions, or even at preventing crime by pre-emptive detention. Their aim is to criminalise Muslim and Asian immigrants. The nine current detainees are there as an example to others, hostages of a policy of terror. In order to pass legislation permitting internment without trial, the British government had to opt out of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, with Home Secretary David Blunkett declaring, despite any concrete security service evidence to back this up, that it was compelled to do so due to the existence of a state of ‘public emergency’, threatening the ‘life of the nation’.
Clearly, it is only the life of this nation that concerns Blunkett, as these detainees – so dangerous apparently that they must be held in maximum security conditions – can opt to leave Britain any time they choose, if another country will take them.
In a recent letter to The Guardian, Prisons Minister Hilary Benn defended the internment policy and refuted criticisms that the detainees were denied ‘basic human rights’, saying that they have ‘exactly the same rights as any other Category A prisoner – such as legal and family visits and exercise outdoors’. Leaving aside the stringency of the conditions faced by all Category A prisoners, this is nonsense. In theory, the detainees can be visited by their friends and family. In practice, anyone visiting them will immediately come under suspicion themselves, resulting in heavy scrutiny and surveillance, culminating very possibly in their own arrest and detention.
FRFI 169 October / November 2002