Monday 24 November 2014

What the High Down Acquittals Mean

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.


  1. YAAAAY Hi5 to the lads! So obviously I'll see this being reported on BBC Breakfast tomorrow morning as their top story?! It will be interesting to see if the acquittal of this trial will give others the idea of protesting too, its not just a case of keeping your head down and doing your time anymore when basic human rights are being taken away, such as time to shower, or time to jump on the phone to keep in touch with family and friends. In my opinion these lads were well within their rights to protest and I would back any others that protest against the cuts too.

    1. Thanks for your comments. It is an amazing and encouraging sign that the general public - as represented by this jury of 12 decent people - took a long, hard look at the regime at HMP High Down and really didn't like what they heard in evidence. It effectively legitimises prisoners protesting over poor conditions. No wonder the Ministry of Justice and 'Crisis' Chris Grayling are so conspicuous by their silence over the verdict.

      The thing that is really surprising me is that this major trial - of the government's prison policy, as much as the eleven prisoners - isn't being reported in the national media. Normally, even a minor disturbance is in the press and TV. In this case only one local Surrey newspaper has bothered to cover the trial and the verdict. What is happening here?

    2. The world of Prisons and the life of someone who visits those in Prison is a very hidden one and the powers that be couldn't possibly have a story that sheds those in prison in a positive light.
      I know from my experiences that if I told Joe Bloggs down the road what my family and I had endured they would class me as crazy and a liar but if I was speaking to someone else who had been through the Criminal Justice and Prison Systems they would understand the absurdities straight away. It is so easy for the public to think oh they been naughty lets just chuck em in there, because of course everyone in Prison is a career criminal, it could never be a case of bad sequence of events or bad luck or wrong place wrong time, and what they will never ever realise is that one day something could quite easily land them in Prison too. If a story like this was given the coverage of lets say something like Ebola I think it could throw a real spanner in the works, or it would at least open up peoples eye's a little and also General Elections next year, the current government don't want to make themselves look any worse than they already do.

  2. Alex, thanks for adding more entries to your blog. Just caught up with the last couple of days posts - its shame the result of the High Down 11 court trial is not being more widely reported. Thanks again for your blog. Sally

    1. Thanks for your comments, Sally. I agree about the lack of media reporting of this important case. I've flagged it up to the Guardian, the Independent and to, so maybe it will eventually get the media coverage it merits.

  3. A well-written article. While I applaud the commonsense of the jury, juries are not selected by the public, be careful that the euphoria of winning a battle and losing the war does not become a cliché which holds true.

    In my opinion Chris Grayling, as a puppet of 'democracy', has made things very difficult for prisoners for one reason: to prepare my beloved country for the introduction of prison factories, like they have in the United States. When introduced these prisons will make it seem like luxury working for slave wages, getting reasonable food to begin with, and human contact rather than being locked away all the time.

    I cannot verify talk of the many, many guillotines, as in the French Revolution, being shipped to US prisons, presumably for those who rock the boat, but it would not surprise me. My understanding is that vagrants are being taken off the streets of some American towns amd incarcerated in the Fema prisons. The 'Catch 22' for Joseph Heller fans is this. Once you are in one of these new-style prisons you are there for life. It works like this.

    Work hard and behave yourself and you will be released. When you are released your ID will have details that you have committed a crime. You will not be able to get a job in the higher tier of slavery (where those of us not in prison live). To survive in our society you will have to commit a crime and then spend longer in the prison factories because of your previous record. And if you get out you will be even less able to get a job.

    Nobody escapes from prison any more.

    Think about it. We're all slaves. Wake up world.

    1. Thanks for your very interesting comments. Although private sector prison industries aren't as prevalent yet in the UK as in the US, I have previously blogged on the issue of prison slave labour for commercial enterprises.

      Of course, if there was no crime there would be no prison service, which is why each successive British government has created thousands of new imprisonable offences with longer and longer sentences. In that respect, the Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) has worked a treat... thousands of prisoners, many given short minimum tariffs, remain in prison many years longer. Get nine months, serve nine or ten years and then remain on licence for a further ten years, subject to immediate recall, perhaps for the rest of your life. Amazing abuse of human rights - and taxpayers' money!

    2. Thousands "of new imprisonable offences" is true with many new acts aimed largely at imprisoning Muslims but also aimed at protecting those in authority from being brought to justice in operating outside the law, for example, The Justice and Security Act (2013).

      You've probably seen this Alex.

    3. Thanks for the link, John. The current legal environment is getting very repressive and I don't see any evidence that any of the major political parties is willing to try to roll back the encroachment of state power on civil liberties, especially freedom of association and expression.

      You can find my own blog post: Forced Labour and Slavery here:

  4. >>Of course, if there was no crime there would be no prison service, which is why each successive British government has created thousands of new imprisonable offences with longer and longer sentences.

    Really? Oh come on Alex, you can do better than that! You can't seriously believe in cabinet meetings where ministers say to each other, "look guys the prison figures aren't nearly good enough, we'd better create some new offences to bump them up."

    Isn't it much easier to believe in the cock-up theory of history than the conspiracy theory? I'd say it's more likely that measures are introduced that haven't been thought through, but which some spin-doctor thinks will play well in the Daily Mail and will catch votes. And then, later on, there are unintended consequences.

    I do agree that the lack of reporting of the High Down verdict is disgraceful, though not surprising. Have you read "Flat Earth News" by Nick Davies? He gives a very interesting account of the way the news agenda gets distorted even though there is no conspiracy of censors.


    1. Thanks for your comments, Richard. As you'll know I always like to have some contrary views expressed on this blog! That's what makes the debate interesting.

      While I'm not generally a conspiracy theorist, I think we do have to acknowledge that there has been an exponential rise in the UK prison population which at nearly 86,000 is now around double the number when Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979. There are also far more imprisonable offences on the statute books (I believe it was something like 365+ specific offences passed by Parliament during the Labour administration's time in office, many of which carried imprisonment as a possible penalty).

      Now when we also add in the catastrophic Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) introduced by David Blunkett - which even he has now denounced as "unjust" - that has left thousands of prisoners in a soul-destroying limbo and the rise of the civil order which carries a criminal penalty (ASBOs etc) for a breach, I think we can see which way this nonsense is going.

      We've already had pensioners banged-up for persistently feeding the birds. The latest nuttiness is to threaten people with the prospect of a jail term if their Japanese knotweed isn't brought under control!

      When you then introduce the concept of private sector prisons for profit - including the use of what, in my humble opinion, amounts to forced slave labour under commercial contracts, and you have a powerful motive to maintain or increase prison numbers, regardless of the overcrowding or the almost absolute failure to achieve even a modest level of rehabilitation. And who picks up the tab? Why the taxpayer, of course, which includes me - and I assume you. I've seen at first hand just how much public money gets wasted imprisoning non-violent offenders, unconvicted remands, elderly pensioners who can't even walk unaided and people living with mental health problems.

      The reality is that this country, or at least the government and the Daily Mail, is absolutely in love with the threat of prison as a tool of social control and behavioural modification for the general public. It's a great pity that Michel Foucault isn't still with us... this craziness would make an excellent addendum to his work Discipline and Punish!

    2. How did you hear about the High Down thing?

    3. The verdict was mentioned very briefly on another blog I follow regularly. Then I got interested in the wider issues raised and did some online research, as well as making a couple of phone calls and sending some e-mails.

  5. Is Nick Davies the guy behind Prison Planet? Are you aware of a couple of London mass marches which have not been reported lately?

    1. Thanks for your questions. I don't know Nick personally but he has been writing about the criminal justice system for years. I've not heard about these marches, but then I live hundreds of miles from London out in the countryside, so we get a bit cut off up north!

  6. Alex Jones is behind Prison Planet

    1. Thanks for answering the question! I wasn't sure.

  7. Bridging the Gap helps cons to find jobs and pairs them up with pen pals while inside. Ive read about cons working for dating agencies, which find admirers for lifers and so on.

    1. Thanks for the comment. This sounds like an interesting project. I'll check it out and if there is a link, I'll add it to my Useful Links section on the blog.