REVIEW: ‘The Prison Service claim that they’re about preserving family ties – but it’s totally the opposite; they take your stamps away, they move you hundreds of miles away from your family,’ former prisoner, Christopher McDonald told the audience at the Prisoners’ Advice Service (PAS) at an annual panel discussion last night. McDonald (a PAS client) and four other panelists addressed the question of whether the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was providing adequate human rights protection to UK prisoners, in a debate chair by former PAS director Matt Evans.
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Nicola Padfield, a senior lecturer in criminal and penal justice at Cambridge University, pointed out that European Governments had, in some cases, gone as far as to release detainees in response to judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). She made clear her position that it was better to have the Convention than not.
Padfield also raised concerns that the ECtHR had made the wrong decision in finding Britain’s hearsay laws to be compatible with the right to a fair trial. Referring to the Court’s famous Horncastle judgment, she said, ‘I hope it’s not a conclusion of any dialogue; the whole point of ECHR is to have an ongoing dialogue. Such a dialogue needs to continue, as I suspect that the national court’s interpretation might not be right.’
Eric Allison, the Guardian’s prison correspondent and an ex-prisoner, said there had been some improvements to the penal system brought about through judgments of the EctHR and the domestic courts. ‘Prisoners tend to view law solely as an instrument of punishment,’ he said. ‘[If prisoners] find the law, however occasionally, to be on [their] side, that could lead somewhere positive.’
Dirk van Zyl Smit, a comparative law professor at Nottingham University, focused on cases dealing with prison overcrowding in Hungary, Italy and Poland to show that the ECtHR is adequate and even improving the lives of prisoners. ‘Because this overcrowding is coupled with other countries, and because it is structural, the Court will order the nation to change the system itself,’ he said. ‘Italy was ordered to make major changes in response to overcrowding, and serious modifications have followed.’
Professor van Zyl Smit also discussed the system in place in many European countries whereby prison governors never take on additional prisoners if their prison is too full. ‘They deal with it in the same way as a hospital: if a murderer is convicted then space will of course be found. But with less serious offenders, people are sent away, and told they will come back to serve their sentence when there is space,’ he explained. ‘The downside is that there are about 200,000 people in Poland who could be called to serve a sentence at any time, and have that hanging over them,’ he said.
Pete Weatherby QC of Garden Court North warned of a ‘tsunami’ of anti-Europe and specifically anti-Convention cases in the UK. He pointed out that the UK stands in complete defiance of four ECtHR judgments finding the blanket ban on prisoner voting to be an arbitrary breach of prisoners’ human rights.
Christoper McDonald, a former IPP prisoner , provided the audience with insight into the reality of life on the inside, far away from the court room. ‘For about two years I stayed in a cell that was no longer than my arm span, with two to three other people in a cell,’ he explained. ‘Later on in my sentence I was represented by Lubia [Begum-Rob, joint managing solicitor at PAS], who told me I do have rights, and we could start to challenge some of the decisions. More needs to be done to inform prisoners of what they are entitled to,’ he said.
McDonald also stated that the prison service was not doing enough to facilitate contact between prisoners and their families. He explained how the prospect of a few minutes telephone contact with loved ones was often all that kept him from despair while he was serving his sentence. ‘As an IPP prisoner I was told that I had to do numerous courses; if the course was only available in another location, I had no choice but to be relocated to Manchester. Without my family you can feel hopelessness, you feel demoralised, you think what’s the point.’