Free all the framed prisoners: John Bowden interviews John Walker of the Birmingham Six

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 100 - April/May 1991


'I wouldn't extradite a dog to this country'


JOHN BOWDEN is a prisoner in Long Lartin and a regular contributor to FRFI. Three days before the final appeal of the Birmingham 6 he managed to record this interview with JOHN WALKER inside the prison.

He began by asking John Walker how he felt on the verge of release after 16 years false imprisonment.

Well, to be honest, I still don't trust them. If I had my way, I wouldn't go near the Court of Appeal. These last 16 years have been very hard but prisoners have been very good to me. I know that I had no chance of going home unless my case just collapsed and it's collapsed all around. Now it's just very hard to click into the present moment.

And what sort of memories will you take with you from prison?

That's a very funny question because I'm going to take some great memories with me from prison. You meet some fantastic people and it's very hard to explain this to people on the outside but what friendship means in prison is 100 per cent friendship.

How much of a significant influence do you think that the Birmingham 6 campaign has had and also the pressure that your family has brought to bear in this case?

It really took off six years ago. I'm not a great religious man but when Cardinal O'Fiach came over here and went back to Ireland and told the people that there were innocent men in prison, the campaign just snowballed. And Chris Mullin, and John Farr and people like this really took an interest in our case. In the very early days of our case nobody wanted to know us; we were just lepers. But our families have been great and we've just built it up over the years. Our wives took over and then our children took over and now it looks as though our grandchildren are starting to campaign! It's taken nearly three generations to get this campaign and if our release does come then we owe it to these people.

 While you've been in prison you've met a number of other prisoners who are clearly innocent.

The first case that comes to my mind is the Carl Bridgwater case. I've lived with these people over the years: Vinny Hickey, Michael Hickey and the other chap I never had the privilege of meeting, Mr Robinson. These people are completely innocent. And then there's the Tottenham 3. You think the Tottenham 3 are in a similar situation to yourself Certainly, but its up to the people in Tottenham; it's up to these communities to come out and help them. It's the same as the Irish community. The Irish community must fight for justice for Irish men and Irish women. There's a young man in prison now whose name is Dessie Ellis. He was extradited over here. In my opinion the word 'extradition' should be taken out of the dictionary and burned. I wouldn't extradite my dog to this country. That Mr Ellis came over here under a charge; things collapsed and the man is still in prison. Is this justice? You must be joking. And as far as the Irish judges that handed this man over, they're just as bad as over here. Somewhere along the line someone in Ireland must stand up and say 'No more extradition' . How about a little bit of repatriation?

How about the three young men who have done 17 years and are still rotting in the prison? Paul Holmes, Billy Arm-strong and Roy Walsh. These young men are still Category A prisoners. Nobody was actually killed by them, but they're Irish. It's the same old crack. If you're black, you're black; if you're Irish, you're Irish; you're going away and that's the end of the story.

Can I ask you about the Prevention of Terrorism Act?

This came out after we got done and Irish people travelling to this country have got to go through all this hassle, police, brutality and all this. But if I walk out of prison some time next week, what happens to this law? Do they just wipe it off the face of this earth or does it still go on? As far as I'm concerned when we walk out, we've got to take it out with us.

After your release will you devote any of your time to highlighting issues such as extradition, the PTA?

I promise you right now in this cell, after I come to know my wife and family again and my grandkids, I will go and help any innocent man in prison. The Tottenham 3? You need me? I'll be there. Vinny Hickey? Micky Hickey? And the other lad - one hundred per cent behind you, lads. I will give all my time until these men are released. And something must be done with the West Midlands police. They were the law; they took the law into their own hands and they fitted people up.

What do you think needs to be done about the British legal system to prevent further 'miscarriages of justice'?

Nobody can take a policeman's word anymore. Lord Denning said himself a couple of days ago that he was conned also. He said the police told him lies and he took the policeman's word against our word and now that man has came out and said we are innocent per-sons. The Appeal Court doesn't seem to be working; then they must find something else to take its place. These judges, lords, whatever they want to call themselves, they're dinosaurs, they just wake up in the morning and somebody looks after them until they go to bed at night. They don't know the real world. What do you think are the failings of the British legal system which led to your conviction? If a policeman gets up and says I've done something, they're going to believe him 99 per cent, I've only got one per cent left. We're talking about forensic and 16 years ago people didn't even know what the word meant. Now, I remember that morning very well. Paddy Hill was taken out before me and they started coming the heavy and I heard the policeman say, 'You've got more explosive on you than Judith Ward'. Well, that must be a joke now, because Judith Ward was done by the same bloke, Skuse, and they sacked him at 52 years old.

Do you think that they realised soon after you were taken into custody that you didn't plant the bombs in Birmingham? Do you think you were deliberately filled up by the police?

Certainly I was. In Birmingham Irish homes were getting wrecked, Irishmen couldn't go to work and things like this. We didn't know about it - we were stuck in prison - but we found out about it after. I think anybody would have done that night. We happened to be at the right place at the wrong time. We're Irish and we come from Birmingham. But we never told them lies. Everything they asked us, we told them the truth. And I'll tell you another thing: I was never arrested. I was asked to come and help the police with their inquiries and 16 and a half years down I'm still in prison trying to help them with their inquiries. What about the trial? What trial? There was no trial. We just sat there, six little monkeys in the dock. Way above our heads; we're only working class people. We never stood a chance.

And you were received into the prison system defined as 'terrorist prisoners'. How did that affect the way you were treated?

 When I came out, somebody called me a Cat A, then somebody told me I was Cat A plus. When I wanted to go to the toilet, four screws went with me. I was branded - the Birmingham 6, the bombers. And any time anything happened in this country we were just treated like animals again. After the Hull riot, 1976, what they did to the Irish prisoners and the black prisoners was just disgraceful. I was listening to the radio and some prison officer came out in favour of the cons and he spoke about two prisoners who he'd seen beaten and I happened to be one of them and the other was a black man. I was told after-wards that the man was sent to Coventry.

What do you feel about the British prison system?

Excuse me for laughing! You could do with about 50 Lord Woolfs coming in here every week and bringing out new White Papers every week because these places are corrupt. There's brutality; they transfer you from one prison to another one and you get it there. If you stand up for yourself you get a bad name and no matter where you go after that, they make sure you pay. If you fight them once, you fight them all through your sentence.

How do you think the prison system in this country should be reformed?

How they go in Europe. They work over there. The trouble is this is fifty years back in these prisons. You've got shops in here where they make stuff and then they take it out and throw it in the North Sea. Mailbags, There must be some fish in those mailbags out in the North Sea.

Here at Long Lartin you're considered a bit of a father figure. How have you managed to endure 16 years as an innocent man in high-security captivity?

For the first five years we were the scum of the earth. I was down the block at Wakefield. It's a very famous place, F-wing. And the weight just peeled off me. My sister came over and took one look at me - I was like a matchstick -and she went back to Ireland and I think she caused a bit of trouble. Next thing I was moved to Long Lartin. I spent a year at Wakefield and out of that year I was 11 months and two weeks in the block in solitary confinement and I think that if I hadn't have got out of there I wouldn't have lasted. No chance. I spent a long time in the block after the Hull riot too.

How do you think you'll cope with life outside?

I get great support from my family. My sister will keep an eye on me. I'm a wee bit frightened of going home, though. I've been away from Ireland a long time. Will you never come back to Britain? I'll come back to visit prisoners but I'll live in Ireland; that will be my base. I'll come over to see a few of the lads over here. I promised them and when I make a promise I keep it.

I would like to ask you about Judith Ward who is presently in Durham prison.

Well, the Judith Ward case - we know that the wee girl's not involved in all that. And the campaign that we had will carry on and I know that there are people who are going to start a campaign for Judith Ward and they're going to try and get young Judith Ward where she should be, back home.

What are your feelings about the situation of Irish people in this country?

 If anything happens in this country - if a bomb went off - and they can't get the people who did it, they'll just get some Irish person and they'll do exactly the same thing. It'll keep on going until the people of Ireland get together.



Policing the crisis

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 121 October/November 1994

' . . . the latent object appears to have been that of placing at the disposal of the Home Secretary a body of well-trained disciplined and armed men. competent to intimidate the public and to keep down the rising spirit of the population.'

Captain W White, on the formation of the new police force, 1838.

Britain's police, prisons and criminal justice system as a whole are in crisis - we are told. After fifteen years of Tory rule, a mass of legislation, a great more rhetoric about 'crime', 'criminals', 'terrorists', 'yobs', 'single parents' etc, a record prison population and with a repressive Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill on the verge of becoming law - we still need ever more draconian regimes to deal with the 'criminal classes', according to the Government. Grotesque crimes are spotlighted in the media to fuel the endless public appetite for real-life horror. The message is that we are all at risk from violent crime. What is really going on? Yes, the Tories are running scared that they will lose their 'Get Tough on Law and Order' reputation to the revamped Labour Party... but there is more at issue than that. CAROL BRICKLEY examines the real purpose of Britain's police force.

At the time of its inception in the early 19th century. central to the role of the British police force was keeping the peace — Public Order. It was a priority which for long periods of relative prosperity and social calm could safely be pushed into the back-ground, replaced by the myth of `policing by consent'. But the real nature of the British police force was bound to resurface: as it did in the face of recession and Thatcher's class divisive government in the 1980s. The process of building a paramilitary force within the police had to begin in earnest following the 1981 inner city riots; in Brixton, in particular, the police were hard pushed to deal with concerted opposition. Lessons had been learned in the north of Ireland and in other British colonies which now had to be put into practice on mainland Britain. Led by ex-RUC Chief Constable, Metropolitan Commissioner Sir Kenneth Newman, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), in close collaboration with the RUC and the Hong Kong Police (notorious for their vicious riot squad), began equipping the police to deal seriously with social discontent.

The watershed came with the 1984/85 miners' strike, closely followed by the 1985 uprisings in Toxteth and Broadwater Farm. Out of their experience of policing these events, new legislation in the form of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Public Order Act 1986 increased police powers. By 1987 at Wapping the police had polished their riot procedures and had established a communication system and armoury to match. Their proficiency was tested again during the 1990 Poll Tax demonstration in London, and again on a minor scale at Welling in 1993. All the paraphernalia is now in place — the cavalry charges, the short and long-shield snatch squads, helicopters, cameras and communications — and with the media ready to pursue the hue and cry afterwards. Since then minor improvements, like extra-long truncheons, have perfected their readiness to meet social disorder with bloody, physical repression.

Miscarriages of justice

While paramilitary proficiency has been perfected, other aspects of policing have run less smoothly. First there came a series of highly-publicised miscarriages of justice in the late 1980s. Worst of all for a sys-tem which prided itself on never being faulty was the fact that the most notorious cases — the Guildford 4, Birmingham 6, Maguires, Judith Ward and the Tottenham 3 — discredited the repressive laws and policing methods of which they were all so proud and self-righteous. The unravelling of what really happened shook the system. Leading politicians, High Court judges, barristers, police and civil servants saw their reputations on the line.

A massive damage-limitation exercise had to begin consisting of the setting up of the May Inquiry, headed by a safe toady, the announcement of a Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, peopled by more toadies, and the half-hearted prosecution of a number of relatively junior police officers involved in the miscarriages. These elements were necessarily enmeshed. Outraged judges like Lord Denning, heavily implicated in the Birmingham 6 and Guildford 4 cases, publicly stated that the men were really guilty. Sympathetic magistrates tried to derail the prosecutions of police at an early stage, claiming abuse of process because of delay. This further delayed the trials, and the May Inquiry was deliberately stalled awaiting their outcome. The Royal Commission plodded on. It is only during the last year, five years after the release of the Guildford 4, and once the original public revulsion at the police corruption has died down, that the chickens could come home to roost.

  • All the prosecutions of police officers for perjury and corruption have been dismissed. In both the trials concerning the Guildford 4 and the Tottenham 3 police, the defence rested on the implication that the original defendants were really guilty — specifically Patrick Armstrong and Winston Silcott — in circumstances where they were unable to defend themselves.
  • Sir John May produced an Inquiry report which stated that the police and courts had not acted wrongly in their treatment of the Guildford 4 and Maguire family.
  • The Royal Commission came up with a bland set of recommendations that the Government could safely ignore.

Look, no chickens!

Crackdown on crime?

In the wake of this whitewash operation, Home Secretary Howard was able to draft a new package of laws —the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill — which, far from reforming an inherently faulty system, makes it more likely that miscarriages of justice will ensue. Whilst many of the Bill's provisions harden up the 1986 Public Order Act by targeting hunt saboteurs, ravers, new age travellers, road campaigners and political demonstrators, to the undoubted satisfaction of Britain's property-owning middle and upper classes, its most crucial provision is the end of the right to silence.

The new caution: 'You do not have to say anything. But if you do not mention now something which you may later use in your defence, the court may decide that your failure to mention it now strengthens the case against you. A record will be made of anything you say and it may be given in evidence if you are brought to trial.' It will make a change from 'you're nicked'!

Central to the English legal system has been the assumption of innocence — you are innocent until proven guilty. You did not have to prove your innocence either to the police or in court. In 1987, in the wake of the Winchester Three fiasco, then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd restricted the right to silence in the north of Ireland, using terrorism as the excuse. The new Bill now extends these provisions to England and Wales. If you fail to mention anything under police questioning after you are cautioned (see box) which you later rely on in any defence at your trial, the judge and jury may imply guilt from your silence.

Despite all the rhetoric about this measure being aimed at professional criminals and wily terrorists who use silence to get away with major crimes, in reality this provision will be used to put pressure on people who are at their most vulnerable under arrest. Threat of the consequences of silence will ensure that the confession under police questioning will take on a new lease of evidential life. Accompanying the public justification for these measures, chief constables have attacked defence lawyers for their behaviour in court ('theatrical games'), and in particular for insisting on seeing all undisclosed material — it was undisclosed material which could have proved innocence in several of the miscarriage of justice cases. Watch this space for the next move to restrict the right to see all evidence.

The remains of the Royal Commission recommendations could be safely laid to rest. One recommendation for a criminal appeal review body, to replace the Home Secretary's monopoly on sanctioning criminal appeals, has survived — but only just. It is proposed that its constitution should follow the same lines as the Police Complaints Authority. So discredited is the PCA, that most defendants prefer to sue in the courts than waste time with a complaint. If this proposal is enacted, the chances of appeal will decrease. While Howard has been ensuring that the defendants are more likely to be convicted, the police have been tying up the loose ends for their paramilitary police. Along with longer batons (purely defensive, you understand), they also want more guns. The rhetoric is similar — more of Britain's robbers go armed, we need to gun them down. In fact a recent Home Office study shows that most armed robbers are pretending, using replica guns or cucumbers wrapped in plastic bags! Even when armed with the real thing, many never fire them, or use blanks. Frightening though gun-toting robbers are, it is doubtful that the police need more armed officers to deal with them. They already have special, mobile armed squads. The gradual process of convincing the British public that they need an armed police force has begun and it is doubtful that their tar-gets will be limited to armed robbers.

It is no accident that this process of tooling-up, both literally and in relation to police powers, is happening now. After 15-years of Tory rule, British society is more divided between the rich and poor than ever before, and the process will go on. Jeffrey Archer has not even been arrested for the crime of insider-dealing involving thousands of pounds, but young mothers go to gaol for the lack of a few pounds to pay a fine. Inequality of treatment is now the norm at every level of our existence. The real causes of increased crime — the breakdown of society — are dismissed in favour of glib definitions of Evil and Yobbery. So the City fraudsters, tax dodgers, arms dealers, errant Dukes and the like, will go free, while the poor, the working class, are imprisoned for longer in harsher conditions. The government is now considering identity cards. And if you choose to complain by organising to change this corruption, the riot squad will be ready to keep the Queen's Peace at the end of a long truncheon or the barrel of a gun.

Centralisation and cost-cutting

There is one further problem the Tories face. A highly-centralised, well-equipped, well-paid and privileged police force, hired to be loyal to the State but ostensibly a public service, is very expensive. With a wealth of experience of privatising nationalised industries, destroying public services and dismantling education and health services under the auspices of efficiency, the Tories are extending these principles to the police and criminal justice system.

The Prime Minister's Yobbery campaign includes proposals for recruiting 30,000 special constables and empowering neighbourhood watch schemes to become vigilante groups. Local councils, including Labour councils, are proposing to set up private patrols on housing estates. Routine policing will soon be carried out by untrained amateurs and security firms — with the advantage that they will be cheap. More invidious still, tenants will have to pay extra for their patrols — if you can't afford it, you don't get it. In fact it is the poor who are already more likely to be the victims of crime than any section of the middle class who are so vocal on the subject. Just like the health service where if you are poor you are more likely to be ill, but you have to join a long queue for scarce resources, the poorest will be outside society, victimised both as criminals and the victims of crime.

There is no point pursuing any illusions that the Labour Party will institute different policies. They did not even summon up the guts to vote against the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill on its second reading in Parliament. The first privatised 'community patrol' was instituted in Tony Blair's own constituency; Tory Wandsworth is merely following suit. For socialists the real solution to the problem lies in society itself. Without a commitment to one another as a society, opposed to the selfish individualism of the 'free' market, policing and the criminal justice system are only another means of intimidating the working class: 'keeping down our rising spirit'.

Scotland: Jailing then failing the vulnerable

The total Scottish prison population as of 8 January 2016 was 7,895. This is made up of both sentenced and remanded prisoners and includes people released to serve the end part of their sentence on home detention curfew (electronic tagging). Current Scottish government statistics predict this population will remain fairly static between now and 2022-23. Yet more lives, individuals and families, will be torn apart.

In July 2015 the Scotland Institute published a report Mental health and Scotland’s prison population.* Up to 2011 Scotland had the highest incarceration rate in the European Union (150 per 100,000 members of the population) despite recorded crime figures steadily falling since the early 1990s (p8). It stated that ‘despite the gains’ from the SNP government’s Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 which brought to an end the use of short-term prison sentences, replaced by non-custodial community payback orders, ‘Scotland continues to incarcerate the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society’ (p9). It reported that as many as 80% of prisoners, especially women, suffered from poor mental health but were not receiving the services and treatment they required. Since 2000 the female prison population in Scotland has risen by 120% despite conviction rates remaining stable, causing trauma to mothers and their children.

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G4S caught in the act of abusing child prisoners

I expect many FRFI readers in prison will have watched the Panorama programme ‘Teenage Prison Abuse Exposed’ on Monday 11 January. Panorama sent an undercover reporter to work as a custody officer at Medway Secure Training Centre (STC) Kent. I was involved in the making of the programme and was not the least bit surprised when the reporter, who carried a hidden camera, recorded scenes of staff gratuitously abusing the young people in their care. I have been on the case of STCs for around seven years and my files are full of horror stories, none of which, until now, we were able to prove. Because, of course, nobody listens to the kids brave enough to report abuse. I was shocked at one scene though, a 15-year-old who had a history of self-harm, being assaulted by a member of staff. The boy had lost his mum when he was seven and the assault took place on the anniversary of her death. Staff were seen boasting of their thuggery to other officers, clearly confident there would not be a whistle-blower among their colleagues.

Medway STC is run by G4S, who also run the other two, Rainsbrook and Oakhill. (Though they are losing the contract to run Rainsbrook in May, after a truly damning inspection report in January 2015.)

Following the programme, G4S put out a statement saying they had sacked four staff members and suspended three more. They also made much of the fact they had passed the allegations of assault by staff over to Kent police. In other words, they were saying that the abuse was down to ‘a few bad apples and we are throwing the book at them’.

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Holloway prison to close Summer 2016

On 25 November 2015 Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove revealed that Holloway prison, Europe’s largest female prison, located in north London, is to be closed in the summer of 2016. Amy Stanley reports.

During its 164 years in operation terrible suffering has been inflicted on women in Holloway and we do not mourn its passing; however it is obvious that this closure is not designed to reduce the number of prisons or the number of people affected by imprisonment, and will in fact create more space within new facilities to imprison more women, while increasing the inconvenience to their families, and giving the government a cash dividend from the sale of the land the prison stands on.

Holloway can hold almost 600 women; according to Gove, its closure will assist to ‘radically reform’ prisons, cut crime, and enhance public safety. However, this claim was overshadowed by the further announcement that the site is to be sold to become luxury housing. Gove boasts about contributing to solving the housing crisis but these new homes will be entirely unaffordable for local working class people, including of course the very same women and families who have experienced the criminal justice system inside Holloway.

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