Friday, 8 August 2014

The Trials and Tribulations of a Prison Law Paralegal - Part II

This afternoon, a colleague of mine stopped by my desk during lunch, and we had a brief chat. She asked how I’m enjoying prison law, and I replied that I am really enjoying it – except for one thing:

The Worst Thing About Prison Law

The worst thing about prison law is that a lot of the time, we can’t help.

The drastic cuts in scope for legal aid funding have meant that we can only get legal aid funding for very limited types of cases – parole hearings for indeterminate sentence prisoners, for example, or Independent Adjudications, when prisoners are accused of having misbehaved whilst inside. But so many cases that we used to be able to get funding for – help with transfers, access to courses, poor treatment of prisoners, resettlement cases, to name a few – are no longer within scope.

What this means is that we get letters and phone calls from people with all kinds of problems, and unless they are able to pay privately, which is rare, we cannot help them. We take on some cases pro bono when we are able, of course, but with drastic cuts to both the scope and fees of legal aid in many different areas, it is hard enough for a firm just to cover its expenses, let alone make a profit; so our ability to take on pro bono cases is very limited.

Just this morning I got a letter from someone who has been recategorised to security category D, which means that he should be transferred to an open prison. But he was recategorised over six weeks ago and has still not been transferred, or even given an indication of when he might be – and we can’t help.

Yesterday I was contacted by someone whose daughter has mental health problems and so when she comes to visit him in prison, she needs to have a special separate visiting area to keep her safe and calm. The prison have told him that they don’t have the staff to facilitate this any more and so she can’t come to visit him – and we can’t help.

A couple of weeks ago I was called by someone who has not had a security recategorisation review, which is now six months overdue. He is being held in a higher security category than is necessary but is unable to have his say and get moved down a category because he has not had a review and has not been told when this will happen – and we can’t help.

We have calls from people who have suddenly been told that their children can’t visit them because of ‘security concerns’, concerns which are never explained to the prisoner and so the prisoner can’t appeal against the decision; we have calls from people who have suddenly had their security category moved up a level without any explanation; we have calls from people arbitrarily moved down an IEP level, which means they lose privileges, without any explanation; we have calls from people who are told that because of unspecified ‘intelligence’, they are being put on the list of prisoners considered to be an escape risk, which means a much more restrictive regime and wearing brightly-coloured clothing, different to everyone else, to make you obvious in a crowd. And we can’t help any of these people.

If the clients have the means to pay, that’s a different story, and we work energetically on their behalf, writing legal representations to prisons for a whole variety of different issues and even bringing judicial reviews where necessary. But my heart breaks for those we can’t help.


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