Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Trials and Tribulations of a Prison Law Paralegal

Looking back over my previous posts on this blog, and thinking about my recent conversations with colleagues, I have realised that I spend a lot of time complaining.

In previous posts, I have complained about trying to get information out of prisons, which is like squeezing blood from a stone; I have complained about the legal aid cuts meaning that we are unable to help some of the clients who call us looking for our assistance; and I have complained about the worsening regime in prisons leading to increased suicides and making me fear for my clients.

Well, I still stand by all of those complaints. But today I thought I would try and be a bit more positive. Because actually, I love my job, and when you get a good outcome, it is fantastic. So these are two recent good outcomes achieved by the prison law department at Wainwright & Cummins.

Mr G

Mr G was in closed conditions, category C, and had a review about six months ago to be considered for category D status. That would mean he would go to an open prison with a more relaxed regime, and be able to settle back into the community, including possibly getting a job outside the prison and visiting his family at home.

However, at his review, his Offender Manager, the Probation Officer assigned to his case, mistakenly confused Mr G with another prisoner with a very similar name, and told the prison that Mr G was likely to escape or abscond if transferred to open conditions. On the strength of this, the prison refused to give Mr G category D status.

Then followed months of wrangling, and trying to explain to the prison and to Mr G’s new Probation Officer (as his last Probation Officer left the Probation Service not long after giving his incorrect report at Mr G’s review) what had happened and why Mr G was not, in fact, at risk of absconding.

Last week Mr G called me and told me that the prison had finally agreed to grant him his category D status, and he will be transferred to an open prison soon. I have hardly ever heard a client so happy and delighted, and we were incredibly pleased.

Mr P

Mr P was, until June last year, out on licence after serving the custodial term of a previous sentence. In June, he was accused of assault, and remanded in custody to await trial. His licence was recalled, so that his remand time would not count towards any future sentence he was given.

The allegations were thrown out by the court as not capable of proof beyond reasonable doubt. But because Mr P was a licence recall, he was not automatically re-released from prison, despite no longer being on remand or having any pending charges.

In cases such as Mr P’s, there should be a speedy review by the Ministry of Justice after the charges are dropped. This initial review can either lead to immediate re-release; or if the MoJ is not sure that the prisoner should be re-released, then they can refer the case to the Parole Board for more detailed consideration. So Mr P sat in prison, and waited for the Ministry of Justice to review his case.

And waited, and waited, and waited. And waited some more. While he was waiting, Mr P’s girlfriend gave birth to their child. Mr P wasn’t there for the birth, because he was still waiting.

I would regularly write to, and nag, the Ministry of Justice, regarding this delay. Every time, the MoJ would tell me that they were waiting on a report from Mr P’s Offender Manager, and that the report had not been submitted. Eventually I contacted the Offender Manager myself to ask why on earth the report was taking so long.

The Offender Manager told me that she had never received any contact from the Ministry of Justice asking for a report on Mr P, so of course she hadn’t written one. After a bit of sleuthing, I realised what had happened: the Ministry of Justice had been emailing the Offender Manager at the wrong email address. They were spelling her name wrong in the email address, and so she had never received any messages from the MoJ.

I sent perhaps the angriest email of my life to the Ministry of Justice, explaining what I had discovered about the email address and asking them to immediately contact the Offender Manager on the correct email address in order to progress Mr P’s review.

Nothing is ever speedy when the Ministry of Justice is involved, but about a month later, I finally got an email confirming that Mr P would be re-released. Mr P called me the same day, and it was one of the best phone calls of my life. He was so incredibly happy, and I was delighted.

So those are two recent success stories from Wainwright & Cummins’ prison law department. I realise that I did manage to get in a bit of complaining about the Probation Service and the Ministry of Justice in telling those stories, but old habits die hard...


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