Although the case of the ‘High Down 11’ hasn’t achieved much national media coverage, their acquittal by a jury on all charges of prison mutiny is likely to prove a major headache for embattled Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling. In fact, it seems as if the jury decided unanimously to give Mr Grayling and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) a rather pointed wake up call over his repeated denials that there is a serious crisis in our prisons.
|HMP High Down: no mutiny here|
The eleven defendants involved in the trial had been prisoners at HMP High Down, a Cat-B establishment at Banstead in Surrey. All had allegedly joined in a prison mutiny in October 2013 when they protested about the new, restricted regime imposed at the jail and initially refused to return to their own cells before barricading themselves into one cell.
They were all charged with “engaging in conduct intended to further a common purpose of overthrowing lawful authority at High Down prison” – tough stuff, not least because the offence of prison mutiny can carry a maximum penalty of ten years’ imprisonment on top of an existing sentence. Seven or eight years for this offence isn’t uncommon, as previous protestors at HMP Ford and HMP Moorland have discovered after they were convicted of mutiny, although a few cons ended up with a hefty nine years when several wings at Moorland, a Cat-C near Doncaster, were trashed during three days’ of rioting in November 2010.
The actual offence, under Section 1 of the Prison Security Act (1992), is committed “when two or more prisoners, on the premises of any prison, engage in conduct which is intended to further a common purpose of overthrowing lawful authority in that prison. The offence is aimed at behaviour intended to make a prison, or part of prison, ungovernable.”
|Prison landing: ungovernable?|
In fact, the criminal charge is rarely used because the prison authorities have other internal disciplinary procedures available and more serious incidents can be referred to an Independent Adjudicator (a visiting district judge) who can add up to 28 days to a prisoner’s existing sentence. As the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) notes in its legal guidance to prosecutors: “in many circumstances, confirmation of disciplinary proceedings will make a prosecution for prison mutiny, or other substantive offences, unnecessary.”
On this occasion, however, the CPS – in its infinite wisdom – decided to charge the eleven cons, presumably to make an example of them lest other prisoners, irked by Mr Grayling’s so-called prison ‘reforms’, are tempted to follow their example. It was a case, no doubt, intended to deliver an object lesson by punishing severely any further attempts to protest against deteriorating conditions in our prisons. Thus the trial opened at Blackfriars Crown Court and ran for three weeks.
The basis of the prosecution case was that when the accused prisoners were told to go into their cells they responded: “Fuck off, we want our association, we are not going behind our doors”. They then barricaded themselves into one cell for over seven hours.
|Blackfriars Crown Court|
Part of the prosecution case was a note that the prisoners pushed out from under the cell door. It apparently read: ‘The reason for these capers is we are not getting enough food, exercise, showers or gym and we want to see the governor lively’. The note added that they were ‘not getting any association and [were] banged up like kippers’.
The protest then assumed something of a surreal tone when the men barricaded together in the cell offered to end their protest if they were given ‘mackerel and dumplings’ to eat. Much of the discontent focused on the way the prison regime had deteriorated significantly, as well as the way in which complaints were being ignored by senior management.
When a senior officer (now known as a ‘custodial manager’) tried to speak to the lads holed up in the cell, she was told: “We don’t want to speak to the monkey, we want to speak to the organ grinder” – presumably the invisible number one governor.
|Tornado Team: riot-busters|
After some hours of fruitless negotiations – and the apparent trashing of the cell fittings and fixtures – a riot-busting Tornado Team of 40 specially trained officers was called in to end the protest. Even then, as the prosecution asserted, the protesters did not “come quietly”. All in all it seems to have been something pretty close to a mini riot in all but name.
Helpfully, the prosecuting counsel offered an insight into the events that led up to the alleged mutiny. He observed: “During 2013 a scheme known as New Ways of Working was introduced in the prison driven by prison service management in line with Government austerity measures and was a requirement for all prisons in the UK. It came into effect on 1 September 2013, some six weeks before the incident.” Nice timing, it would appear.
Next the prosecution barrister explained what New Ways of Working really involved: “The purpose was to make High Down prison more efficient from a government perspective, a significant reduction in the number of staff and a more restrictive regime for prisoners. There were fewer staff to carry out day-to-day activities. Staff shortages and a revised timetable led to changes in the core daily timetable and meant prisoners were locked up for longer periods during the day.”
|The jury has spoken: not guilty|
This is where we get the real crux of the matter. Cuts in frontline staffing and a consequent increase in more time spent banged-up in cells, with less activities – such as showers, opportunities to telephone home, have association or exercise, access to the gym – and, according to the cons, food shortages. All the hallmarks of the ongoing prison crisis that have been described at length in numerous reports issued in recent months by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and various Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) across the prison estate in England and Wales.
Even the Governor of High Point, Ian Bickers, seems to have conceded in his evidence before the court that it was the government’s imposed changes that had led to the staff shortages, the deterioration in regime and – ultimately – the prisoners’ complaints and eventually this incident. As he told the jury from the witness box: “Prison governors to some degree have less discretion about what they can do and when. They follow a standard process and every prison is benchmarked against another. The core day is 7.30am to 7.30pm. Less prisoners are actively involved in work or education and they spend more time locked up.”
Other changes involved the ending of two hot meals a day, with packed lunches being substituted for one of these. He also observed that the MOJ had accepted that they may have got it wrong and were trying to recruit additional staff. Hmmm… I wonder how much longer Mr Bickers will remain in post after last week’s acquittals. His admissions in his evidence about the internal problems caused by government policies appear all together too candid for comfort. I suspect that if the national media pick them up he will be doomed.
|A major misjudgment by the CPS?|
According to the defence case, the eleven men were protesting legitimately over poor prison conditions. To be honest, I’m not sure on what legal basis the defence argument was made out as the prosecution case did seem pretty cut and dried, but the good old English jury – God bless ‘em – appears to have decided in this case to give Mr Grayling, the Ministry of Justice, the Prison Service, and their proxy, the CPS, a damn good bloody nose.
Despite hearing all the evidence about naughty, disobedient cons refusing to obey lawful orders like good little lads, the members of the jury voted to acquit. It might almost be what is known in the trade as a ‘perverse verdict’ in which the jurors take a moral stance against the prosecution case regardless of the evidence given. One can only imagine the apoplexy that has greeted the ‘not guilty’ verdicts down in Westminster, particularly after having poured taxpayers’ money down the drain in a bid to get some exemplary convictions in defence of Mr Grayling’s Daily Mail-pleasing crackdown on cons.
It is difficult to conceive of a more provocative outcome for the Prison Service, since this verdict will almost certainly undermine any further use of the prison mutiny charge for such show trials unless a whole establishment really goes up in smoke, with staff being injured. Clearly, from Mr Grayling’s perspective, English juries cannot be trusted to convict cons who protest against what are being seen as increasingly inhumane and unacceptable conditions in our prisons.
|"Legitimate protesting" by cons|
It has also led to an embarrassing public washing of the Prison Service’s dirty linen and, as the jury’s verdict shows, the general public isn’t liking what it sees. As one of the defence barristers, Andrew Jefferies QC, observed after the trial: “By its verdicts, the jury must have accepted that the defendants may have been legitimately protesting rather than intending to overthrow the prison authority.”
He also added the rather pointed observation that: “During the trial, the jury heard about the independent monitoring board report and the growing complaints within the prison, particularly since the implementation of the cuts in September 2013.” Oh dear. The crisis cat appears to have been let out of the prison bag.
The next question is when and where will the next prison protest take place? No doubt there has been censorship across the prison estate over the outcome of the ‘High Down 11’ trial. What’s the betting that any issue of the monthly prison newspapers Inside Time, Converse or Jail Mail that reports the case will be banned?
I suppose that it’s not entirely surprising that the MOJ and Mr Grayling have remained conspicuously silent about the very unwelcome result from Blackfriars Crown Court. The only wonder is that the national media has been so slow to spot the implication of the jury’s verdict: prisoners who mount protests over poor conditions might actually not be guilty of prison mutiny. Result: Prisoners 1: Grayling 0.