Thursday 4 April 2013

Easy Target

HM Prison Shepton Mallet, est. 1610, a Grade II listed building

There is unlikely to be a storm of protest about the announcement that legal aid for prisoners to challenge the conditions under which they are held is to be slashed - see the story here.

The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling asserts that taxpayers' money was being used for "unnecessary legal cases".

He explains further: "I have been appalled that taxpayers pay millions of pounds every year supplying lawyers for prisoners to bring unnecessary legal cases. After years spiralling out of control, the amount spent on legal aid for prisoners is being tackled. The vast majority of these types of complaint can and should be dealt with by the prison service's complaints system.

"Legal aid must be preserved for those most in need and where a lawyer's services are genuinely needed."

The cut would affect issues such as the category of prison or which section of a prison an inmate was being held in, and levels of visits and correspondence.

Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform says: "The government's proposals to further curtail legal aid for prisoners are profoundly unfair and will have negative consequences for society as a whole. You do need safeguards to ensure that our prison system is fair, decent and open to legitimate challenge."

And Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, says: "While no-one would support vexatious use of the law, when it comes to people deprived of their liberty and held by the State you do need safeguards to ensure that our prison system is fair, decent and open to legitimate challenge."

Well, quite, and you could add that the prison system does not have a good record of sorting out problems through its internal complaints arrangements.

I worked with a few prisons when I was with NACRO and got to know many prisoners and staff. One key thing often not understood by the public is the huge variety of types of people in prison.

True, there are some smart, street-wise and well-grounded chancers whose risk-taking didn't pay off. But there are many more people with very poor education and with severe mental health problems - I mean very vulnerable people - who are really there because they haven't worked out how to rub along with life in the community. Prison is bad for everybody but for these people it is damaging, inhumane, and downright cruel.

Taking away these people's opportunity to get independent legal help to challenge their conditions (which we know from endless independent reports to range from scarcely adequate to appalling) is an indictment on all of us, not just this Minister. That he should feel confident that there won't be an outcry shows how little we appear to care.


I was interested to see the closure last week of HMP Shepton Mallet. I visited the prison over twenty years ago and took a good look around as well as chatting to prisoners. It was like stepping back in time.

This is - was - the oldest working prison dating from 1610 and many of its buildings were truly ancient if well-constructed. On the day I went it was extremely hot and prisoners were lying around on the ground of the claustrophobic internal yard while the stone walls reflected the fierce sun down on them.

You may think that Mr Grayling is doing some good by closing it but the prisoners might not agree. It was a small prison with shabby and limited facilities but good relationships between prisoners and staff, something evidenced strongly by recent inspections which saw a useful future for it in spite of its age.

Of course it was closed for economic reasons, to be replaced by massive, industrial-scale gaols. I know where I'd rather go.