Prisoner wins phone rights case

February 28, 2009

Last Updated: 10:28AM GMT 22 Mar 2002

A PRISONER today secured a legal victory for jail inmates after he won the right to talk to journalists on the telephone on “matters of legitimate public interest”.

John Hirst’s application for judicial review against Home Secretary David Blunkett and the Home Office was successful at the High Court sitting in Cardiff.

Mr Justice Elias ruled that the Home Office policy on dealing with access to the press by phone by serving prisoners was unlawful.

Unless the Government appeals, it will be forced to review its stance on the issue.

Lawyers for Hirst, who was given life for manslaughter in 1980 and who is in Sudbury prison, Ashbourne, Derbyshire, had argued that Mr Blunkett’s policy of allowing the telephone calls in only exceptional circumstances breached Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to freedom of expression.

Link.

Jailed arsonist, drug smuggler and killer ask judges for the vote

February 28, 2009

By Philip Johnston, Home Affairs Editor
Last Updated: 10:23PM BST 28 Jun 2001

AN arsonist, a drug smuggler and a man serving life for manslaughter asked the High Court yesterday to give them and 64,000 other criminals the right to vote.

In a test case, they sought a declaration that their disfranchisement by the Representation of the People Act was incompatible with the Human Rights Act. For centuries, the electoral system has denied the vote to “lunatics, peers and prisoners”. The law was recently altered to allow the mentally ill to vote if capable of “reasoned judgment”.

Hereditary peers were enfranchised on losing seats in the Lords. Only members of the Lords, those convicted of an electoral crime within five years and prisoners remain without the vote. In the High Court, Edward Fitzgerald, QC, appearing for two of the prisoners, said: “It is illegitimate to use disqualification from the vote as punishment.”

Even were it legitimate, the legislation was arbitrary because it punished imprisonment, not the offence, he told Lord Justice Kennedy, sitting with Mr Justice Garland and Mrs Justice Ebsworth. Mr Fitzgerald said prisoners who had served their tariff for retribution and deterrence and continued to be detained purely on a preventative basis were also wrongly disfranchised.

He said the case was a matter of high constitutional importance and reflected a trend in Europe and western democracies in favour of allowing prisoners to vote. Mr Fitzgerald said: “There is no ban in 19 European states, and there is only a specific ban targeted towards particular types of offenders or convicted prisoners in eight states. Only in eight European states is there is a complete ban, such as the one in the UK.”

The application for judicial review was made by Anthony Pearson, serving 10 years for importing drugs; Richard Martinez, serving life for committing arson with intent to endanger life; and John Hirst, serving life for manslaughter. Martinez completed his tariff for retribution and deterrence last September and is detained for preventative reasons.

Hirst is six years over his tariff. Pearson and Martinez applied to join the electoral role where they lived before imprisonment and were rejected as serving prisoners. Outside court, Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, which is supporting the case, said that enfranchising convicts would increase the chances of them going straight on release.

She said: “Imprisonment is about deprivation of liberty. This is a relic of the 19th century and disfranchisement. If we are interested in involving people and asserting their role and responsibility as citizens, surely they should have the vote while in prison.” Votes for prisoners would require ballots in jails. However, arrangements are being made in mental hospitals to allow patients to vote.

Ann Widdecombe, shadow home secretary, said: “The courts have ruled that convicted prisoners, many dangerous, cannot be allowed to take part in normal society. How can it be sensible to give them a say in how that society should be run? We warned the Government that the incorporation of the European Human Rights Convention into our law would result in this sort of silly case”.

Link.

Judge lifts ban on prisoners phoning the press

February 27, 2009

By Matt Born
Last Updated: 8:21PM GMT 22 Mar 2002 [Deadtreepress report 23/302]

PRISON curbs on inmates talking to the press about the conditions in which they are held are unlawful, the High Court said yesterday.

Mr Justice Elias said that the Home Office policy, which prevents prisoners having telephone conversations with journalists, was in breach of their right of free speech.

He made his ruling after John Hirst, who has served 22 years for killing his landlady with an axe, sought a judicial review of the ban.

Hirst brought the case after falling foul of Prison Service rules allowing inmates to speak to the media only in “exceptional circumstances”.

Hirst, the General Secretary of the Association of Prisoners “trade union”, had given a series of interviews to The Telegraph, Radio 4’s Today programme and Radio 5 Live, among others, about a High Court case he had brought seeking the right of prisoners to vote in general elections.

As a result, he was placed in segregation, then transferred from Nottingham to Rye Hill, Warwicks, a prison where inmates are allowed to call only 10 vetted numbers.

Home Office lawyers had argued that prisoners lose the right to speak to the press as part of their punishment.

In any case, even though they could not speak to journalists by telephone, they were allowed to write to them.

However in his written judgment, Mr Justice Elias agreed with Hirst’s lawyers that the restriction on speaking directly to the media was in breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to freedom of expression.

Hirst’s case was supported by statements from a number of national newspaper and television journalists, including the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby, and the Telegraph.

In sworn submissions, the journalists said that for news of prison issues to be properly and effectively reported it was essential they be allowed to speak to inmates directly.

Mr Justice Elias said the ban “appears to assume that sending information by letter will always, or at least virtually always, suffice to meet the prisoner’s objective.

“In the light of the comments from the journalists, that seems to me to be an unjustified assumption. It will sometimes be enough, but not always.”

Hirst praised the judge for his “courage in standing up for human rights”.

The Home Office is considering an appeal.

Link.

[Upon consideration the Home Office decided not to appeal the judge’s decision. Just as well, because the judge’s decision was legally flawless. However, the Prison Service did implement measures to curb the power of the prisoners union, for example, the introduction of the IEP scheme]

Prisoner fights gagging orders on media links

February 27, 2009

By Matt Born
Last Updated: 10:26PM BST 12 Aug 2001

THE legality of prison rules which prevent inmates from speaking to the media is to be challenged in the High Court.

Lawyers acting for John Hirst, who is serving a life sentence for manslaughter, have applied for a judicial review of the rule, arguing that it is in breach of the Human Rights Act.

Hirst has been subject to a gagging order after repeatedly giving interviews to journalists, including The Telegraph, Radio 4’s Today programme and Radio 5 Live. Prison rules require inmates to apply in writing to the governor for permission to speak to the press.

They state that permission will normally be refused except in cases where there are “wholly exceptional circumstances”. But Hirst’s lawyers claim that the rules are incompatible with the right to freedom of expression, guaranteed under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

It states that free speech can be restricted only where it is likely to endanger national security, public morals or public safety. In papers submitted to the court on Friday, Hirst’s lawyers have called for restrictions on telephone calls to be changed so that the onus is on the prison governor to justify preventing a prisoner speaking to the media.

Nogah Ofer, Hirst’s solicitor, said: “This is about the right of the public and media to know what is going on inside, as well as the rights of prisoners to speak out.” Hirst, who was convicted in 1980 of killing his landlady, has become a campaigner for prisoner rights.

In March, he was transferred from Nottingham prison to Rye Hill, Warwicks, and a gagging order imposed after he spoke to Radio 5 Live about the Association of Prisoners, a trade union for inmates, of which he is a founder.

Miss Ofer said they had made proposals to ensure that prison security would not be jeopardised. These included pre-recorded, “chaperoned” radio interviews. “We’re are giving the Prison Service the opportunity to maintain control while ensuring that any restrictions on an inmate’s human rights are both proportionate and necessary.”

A Prison Service spokesman said: “We understand an application is being made and we will consider it when we receive it”.

Link.

Prisoners in move to set up trade union

February 27, 2009

By Matt Born
Last Updated: 2:09PM BST 19 Jun 2001

BRITAIN’s 65,000 prisoners are planning to form their first trade union to secure better living and working conditions in the country’s jails.

Lawyers acting on prisoners’ behalf are expected to approach Martin Narey, Director General of the Prison Service, this week asking his permission for a union to be set up. If Mr Narey refuses, the prisoners are confident that they will be able to win the right to form a union under the Human Rights Act, which comes into effect on Oct 2.

The new union will be called the Association of Prisoners. The acronym, AOP, is a deliberate inversion of that of the prison guards’ union, the Prison Officers’ Association. The move for union recognition reflects growing frustration among prisoners at the failure of successive governments to implement recommendations made by Lord Justice Woolf 10 years ago in the aftermath of the riot at Strangeways Prison in Manchester in 1990.

In his report, Lord Woolf recommended the creation of an organisation to represent prisoners. He also said inmates should be allowed to take the government to court if conditions in jails fell below agreed standards. Neither proposal was subsequently adopted. Under the new proposals, prisoners in both private and state-run prisons will automatically be eligible to join the union. There will be no membership fee.

The proposed union would have as its aims an increase in wages for prison work, better access for relatives and a reduction in the time spent by inmates in their cells.

It would also seek the appointment of independent magistrates to adjudicate on disciplinary issues, rather than governors.

Yesterday, the Howard League for Penal Reform welcomed the proposal.

A spokesman said: “We have always encouraged the idea that prisoners should have proper representation, not least to protect their employment rights.”

David Wilson, professor of criminal justice at the University of Central England, and a former prison governor, said he supported the idea.

“The only time we truly change and improve our prisons is when the prisoners themselves have demanded it by drawing attention to their conditions, such as at Strangeways,” he said. “If we can give prisoners a way of voicing their concerns legitimately, then so much the better.” In Holland, prison governors must act on issues raised by inmates through grievance committees. Failure to do so can lead to a judicial review.

The new association is using the rules and regulations of the Transport and General Workers’ Union as the basis for its organisation.

A secret ballot of members would be held to elect a general secretary.

One inmate involved in setting up the union warned that it would take industrial action if grievances were not addressed.

“If it comes to it we could withrdraw our labour, but any such decisions would be reached democratically with a ballot of members,” he said.

Prisoners are said to be confident that Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, will not risk unrest in the country’s jails in the run-up to the general election by opposing the union’s creation.

They also believe Mr Narey will treat the proposal sympathetically.

Earlier this year Mr Narey spoke out against a “culture of violence” in Britain’s worst jails which allowed officers to abuse inmates with impunity.

A source involved in planning the new union said: “We are hoping Mr Narey will agree that this association would be a positive step for prisoners’ personal development as well as protecting their welfare and that it will also encourage them to support each other as well as being a vehicle to improve their conditions.

“Of course we appreciate there are security issues that he will be concerned about and are happy to discuss those with him.”

However, if the request is rejected the prisoners plan to mount a legal challenge under Article 11 of the [European Convention in the] Human Rights Act [1998] which guarantees an individual’s right to form and join a union.

(original source here.)

‘Unprepared’ for life after jail

February 27, 2009

By Anna Browning
BBC News

A report from the Prison Reform Trust shows the number of offenders being returned to jail has more than trebled in the past five years.

One former inmate who thought he had put prison behind him talks about having to return to jail.

After 25 years as an inmate, 55-year-old John Hirst thought he had left life behind bars when he was freed from Rye Hill Prison in May 2004.

But three months later, in August, he was recalled to jail until he was released for the second time in November 2004.

Mr Hirst knew life outside would be challenging.

At the age of 28 he was convicted of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility, and given a life sentence.

Fast-forward a quarter of a century and he faced a world of faxes, mobile phones and CD players – all new to him.

“It was like being an alien landing for the first time,” he said, adding while in prison he had not been given help or advice on life on the outside.

This is something the government denies, saying rehabilitation and resettlement are cornerstones of its “new approach to offenders’ management” as it reduces the risk of reoffending.

But, says Mr Hirst: “I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t know about meters for gas and electricity, about direct debits and charges. Things like that I just didn’t have a clue about.”

Back to jail

But, he says, he was even less prepared for the two police officers who came knocking on his hostel door one morning to take him back to the cells.

Mr Hirst says he asked why he was being taken back to jail but the police officers said he would be told back at the station – and at the station he was told he would be told at the prison.

It took three weeks for him to be told why he was recalled, he said.

The reasons included threatening and abusive behaviour – of which he claims they had no evidence; being abusive to the police – he claims the police “were harassing me and I just answered back”; and owing money to the hostel he was staying in.

“The recall was longer than the time I was out after 25 years and that hurt,” he said.

“Serving the 25 years was a lot easier than those three weeks, because before at least I knew why I was there.”

He was freed again in November 2004.

Since then, he says, he feels like he is always looking over his shoulder, waiting for a knock on his door.

And while the first time around he had a job, he lost it after being recalled and has not been able to find another.

“The probation service used to be your friend, you would ring them up to get help,” he said. “But now they are an extension of the prison force.

He says he understands why many fellow ‘lifers’ find life inside easier. There they have a roof over their head and meals are provided.

“I have managed to get by but it is because I am so strong-minded in that respect,” he said.

Now he has his own house that he rents and is gradually teaching himself how to live with his new-found freedom.

Inquiry pledge

“I’ve been watching DIY programmes on how to do property up, so I have been able to paint my house and do odd repairs around the place.

“Come hell or high water I’m going to succeed.”

A spokesman for the National Offender Management Service – which includes both the prison and probation service – said while they did not comment on any individual cases, any instances brought to their attention where recalled offenders were not told why they were back in prison would be investigated.

“We acknowledge in the past that this might have happened,” he said.

“We don’t have any examples ourselves, and if the Prison Reform Trust or anyone else has a possible case where this has happened they should contact us and we will investigate fully”.

[Originally posted on the internet here.]