Friday, 4 July 2014

From Prison Law in the UK to Death Row Work in the USA

I left the UK worrying about the prison law clients I was leaving behind. Not because they weren’t in excellent hands but because having worked as a Prison Law consultant for around a year and a half I had a good understanding of the daily injustices faced by prisoners in the UK.

Ill-considered arbitrary transfers to prisons hundreds of miles from their family members; having to face the district judge without the full details of the case against them until 3 minutes beforehand; being told that they can’t progress in prison until they complete a course that is unavailable to them; the list is long, perverse and varied. The prisoners who are treated most unfairly in UK prisons are foreign nationals, often model prisoners who are denied the same pathways of progression because their risk levels are deemed higher -- governors simply won't consider their cases on their individual merits despite clear guidelines that they must.

After my first week at the California Appellate Project, an organisation that challenges convictions and sentences in capital cases, I felt grateful that my clients at home were lucky enough not to be incarcerated in any Californian prison.

Since 1970 there has been a mass incarceration movement in California; the actual crime rate has remained stagnant despite an increase in incarceration. This political move designed to appease voters has resulted in severe overcrowding. Californian prisons began to hold 200% capacity in the late 1990s. The norm in these prisons now is for two or three prisoners to share a space that is barely adequate for one. Gymnasiums, day rooms and recreational areas have been transformed permanently into huge dormitories crammed with triple bunks. These spaces have become incredibly dangerous; they pose serious risks to prisoners' physical and mental health and have the effect of creating criminals.

By the mid 1970s, the concept of rehabilitation was so remote that the criminal justice department was forced to amend its purpose: 'the California legislative now finds that the purpose of incarceration is to punish.' And so it has remained. With armed correctional officers inside housing units, man cages lining hallways, the use of prisoner restraint chairs and almost total sensory deprivation with windowless storage facilities these institutions have the effect of creating mentally vulnerable criminals.

Race gangs rule in prison. You join one for protection. If you do not, you are murdered, or worse, become someone’s prison ‘wife’. In return, you owe your gang permanent allegiance or face your, or your family’s death. I wish I were exaggerating. Members wear their tattoos like body armour, a swastika burned into your skin means ‘leave me alone, I have the protection of a gang’ members are often ignorant as to the what the symbolism means on the outside world.

At Corcoran prison guards were found to deliberately release rival gangs into the yards at the same time. They would then place bets on which members would live and die. If the fighting didn’t begin soon enough, they shot and killed them themselves. Don’t believe me? http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/staged-fights-betting-guards-gunfire-and-death-for-the-gladiators-1310849.html

All too often a prisoner begins their career in prison convicted of a petty crime, but by the time they are released they are affiliated with a gang, to whom they owe their life. They are released, criminalised, indoctrinated and institutionalised to do their gang’s bidding and go on to commit an offence that is punishable by death. Of course, they can’t give any evidence in mitigation or plead duress in court, as it will get back to the gang. They are condemned to death and the cycle continues.

I return to the UK in awe of those at CAP who have dedicated their lives’ work to fighting these injustices. It is a slow and arduous process but each success is a milestone.


Julia Wookey is a former Prison Law Consultant at Wainwright & Cummins, who has spent the last several months working with the California Appellate Project  

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