Friday, 14 November 2014

The Trials and Tribulations of a Prison Law Paralegal

On my lunchbreak today I visited the BBC News website. There I saw the following headline: ‘Inmate Found Dead in Cell at Overcrowded Elmley Prison’.

I have many clients in HMP Elmley. With my heart in my mouth I followed the link and scanned down to find the name of the inmate.

It was a sad relief to find that the inmate was not one of my clients – a relief, because none of those people I have got to know and whose legal issues I have worked on have died. But sad, because I know that that prisoner will have had friends, a family, perhaps children, who will be suffering and grieving today at their loss.

This is the reality of the crisis in prisons that is still being ignored and minimised by those in government. It is not that prisoners’ lives have got a little bit harder, nor that prisons are being stopped from being like ‘holiday camps’, as Mr Grayling famously described them. Prisons have gone from being barely acceptable, barely humane punishment centres to being utterly inhumane. Self-inflicted deaths in custody have rocketed, in direct response to the brutal changes made in prisons.

Chief among these changes has been the enormous cuts to the number of prison staff. This is particularly important as the result is that many prisoners are locked up in their cells for twenty-three hours a day or even more, as there are not sufficient staff members to safely allow the prisoners out of their cells. This leads to prisoners being unable to visit the library, unable to go to the gym, unable to spend time with other inmates, and even unable to shower. They are locked in their cells for endless hours – and it cannot be more obvious that this is not a recipe for rehabilitation. If you treat prisoners with humanity, they may rehabilitate. If you treat them with brutality, then there is no possibility of rehabilitation, and they will be released only to continually re-offend. Ironically, this ultimately costs more money than it would to treat prisoners properly in prisons in the first place, but that isn’t the kind of calculation that the Ministry of Justice is interested in making.

I assist my clients with all sorts of Prison Law matters. But more and more, I am getting telephone calls from my imprisoned clients saying that they fear for their safety or even their lives; that everyone they know in the prison carries a weapon; that drugs are everywhere; that prison officers, overstretched and undertrained, are unfair or even cruel; most of all, that they are afraid.

My clients were sentenced to a prison term, not a prison term plus constant danger and fear. Removal of someone’s liberty is punishment enough for the damage they have done.


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