NOTTINGHAM, England — Prisoner rights are not a popular topic either in the hallowed halls of the British Parliament or in the public domain in Britain. Aside from the standard “tough on crime” approach that most governments adopt as a go-to populist policy, there is little if any attention paid to people in our population who languish behind bars and the process by which they got there.
As a prison-law adviser working for a specialist prison law firm, I work with mostly male prisoners all over England and Wales, providing them with legal advice and representation. Every day, I encounter the broken, the damaged and the seriously dangerous individuals within our society, ranging from those who have committed petty minor offenses to career criminals and those locked up for the most serious acts of violence, such as murder and rape.
Advocating for the rights of such individuals is a task that many people view with distaste and, in some cases, downright dismissal or disagreement. Why would you choose to spend your energy helping the very worst among our ranks, they ask? How do you feel knowing you helped put sex offenders or murderers back on our streets, they cry? Many people even maintain that as criminals these individuals have forfeited their fundamental rights and as such can be deprived of much more than just their liberty.
Yet they don’t see the broader picture.
The do not see that the number of men, women and children being sent to prison in Britain has almost doubled in the last 20 years, with the majority 30 to 39 years old. Women make up around 5 percent of the prison population (more than 4,000 in the last year), while 26 percent of the prison population comes from an ethnic minority background — an incredibly disproportionate representation of the population in England and Wales. (Of Britain’s total population, 87 percent is white.)
Many people outside the world of living or working in prisons do not see that almost every prisoner has had a difficult, sometimes hopeless, start in life. From abuse, neglect and poverty, to drug and alcohol addiction and mental health problems, it is generally an achievement if they do manage to pull themselves out of this tired narrative of inherited addictions and learned behaviors.
The vast majority, however, merely replicate the same behaviors, and with no money, no opportunity and no support system other than the bare minimum provided by the government, attempts to recalibrate their purpose and functioning in life inevitably fail. For many criminals, it is simply a case of trying to survive from one day to the next.
One prisoner I visited had been raped and abused by his parents as a child. When he committed the same acts later in life on his own victim, he was so disgusted by his actions that he resorted to violent self-harm, precisely because, as he said, he knew exactly how they felt.
Secondly, people don’t realize that once a person is mired in the criminal justice system, it can be very difficult to get out of it. There are several reasons for this problem, including the lack of suitable education in prisons and the chronic understaffing, overcrowding and underfunding within the system.
Another reason, which has been largely kept under the radar until recently, is the problem of indeterminate sentences. These are prison sentences with no fixed end date and they include life sentences and incarceration for reasons of public protection.
The rationale behind these sentences is that they protect the public against violent, unpredictable offenders by imprisoning them until they are deemed safe to be released.
When such a sentence is handed down, the court mandates a minimum period of time (a “tariff”) that the prisoner must serve before his or her release can be considered. Once a prisoner is eligible for release, his case can be reviewed by the Parole Board of England and Wales, an independent, executive public body sponsored by the Ministry of Justice that carries out risk assessments on prisoners to determine whether they can be safely released into the community.
The Board has the power to direct the prisoner to be released if it deems that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that he remain in prison. The Board does this by reviewing the case either on the papers or by conducting an oral hearing with the prisoner.
Introduced in 2005, the idea of indeterminate sentences was not new — several countries, including the United States, have similar provisions — but the problem was that courts vastly overused their sentencing powers in this respect. It was estimated at the time that they may affect around 900 prisoners, but at one point over 6,000 prisoners were serving such sentences throughout England and Wales.
The sentences were abolished in 2012 after much political controversy; however, the change was not retrospective, so around 3,000 prisoners still serve indeterminate sentences in Britain. Many of these prisoners have served more than double their tariff or longer. For example, James Ward, a prisoner, was given a 10-month sentence in 2006 but served 11 years before the Parole Board released him, a result of public pressure and online campaigns. His story is not unusual.
The various United Nations human-rights bodies do not pronounce too often on prisoners’ rights, although a working group on arbitrary detention has declared that “with respect to indefinite detention of detainees the mandate finds that the greater the uncertainty regarding the length of time, the greater the risk of serious mental pain and suffering to the inmate that may constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment or even torture.”
The effects of such uncertain sentences can be devastating for prisoners and their families. Depression and hopelessness abound. They can see no way out of the overcrowded, understaffed and often dangerous environment behind Her Majesty’s iron bars. This inevitably leads to frustration, which can manifest itself as poor behavior or ill-informed choices, such as prisoners smashing or flooding their cells, assaulting others or committing serious acts of self-harm. The rates of suicide and self-harm among inmates hit record levels last year.
I encounter these tendencies among prisoners often. A recent client had been in segregation for five months and was hitting himself in the face so hard and so much that his mother was worried he was going to be permanently scarred or deformed. Another prisoner I met had cut off his own fingertips and tried to cut off his arm. I also consistently hear of medications being stopped without warning or reason or not being properly or regularly administered.
One client told me he had been ringing his alarm for hours at a time, pleading with prison staff that he needed a mental health professional as he was having suicidal thoughts, only for him to be repeatedly ignored until he started damaging property in his cell. He was disciplined but still not provided with mental health support.
Unfortunately, these stories rarely make the headlines, but when they do, they are met with little interest or sympathy from the public or, it seems, the British government.
For years, the government refused to allow prisoners the right to vote, despite the European Court of Human Rights repeatedly ruling since 2005 that a blanket ban on voting was a breach of human rights. It was only last year that the government made the begrudging concession to allow those prisoners out on temporary license — those deemed safe enough to be allowed into the community for short periods at a time — the right to vote. This means that of a prison population of 83,285, only around 100 will become eligible to vote.
The government has also shown considerable reluctance to help prisoners rehabilitate themselves while locked up. The European Court of Human Rights in 2012 once again intervened, mandating that prisoners on indeterminate sentences must have access to appropriate rehabilitative services, otherwise their detention would become arbitrary and contrary to human-rights law.
Again, this is a problem I see regularly. Several clients are stuck in prisons that do not offer suitable rehabilitation courses for which they are eligible, or these courses are oversubscribed and have long waiting lists.
Alternatively, prisoners are simply ineligible for any courses or there are no courses that address their offending behaviors. This means that they are unable to demonstrate that they have progressed or successfully reduced the risk they pose to the public. As such, when they become eligible for parole, their chances of release are very low to nonexistent. So they are kept incarcerated for at least another year until their next parole review, when the fruitless cycle begins again.
The problem is that prisoners are so often painted as just their offenses rather than the people and experiences that have led them to commit their crimes. When you actually confront these faces, no matter how violent or predatory they may be, it is impossible not to see them as people — people often crying out for help.
Rhona Scullion is a Scottish writer and reporter who works as a prison law advocate in Nottingham, England. She writes on a variety of human rights and British political topics, often on women’s issues. Having previously worked in Hong Kong and Peru, she has written for the Women News Network and UNA-UK, among others. Scullion has a joint honors bachelor’s degree in English literature and modern history from the University of St. Andrews and a postgraduate law degree from Nottingham Law School. She passed the English bar exam in 2017.