Back in July this blog carried a post entitled Weasel Words (1): Prison ‘Disturbances’. In it I analysed the way in which the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) manipulates language in order to make the upsurge in disorder and violence inside our crisis-ridden prisons seem much less serious.
|"No riots here"|
As I observed: “The good news is that since September 2012 – when Chris Grayling became Secretary of State for (In)Justice – there haven’t been any prison riots in the UK. That’s not because whole wings of prisoners haven’t refused to obey screws’ orders and gone on rampages, but because these days there is a new code of weasel words in use. Now we have prison ‘disturbances’ or ‘incidents’.”
The problem facing Mr Grayling and his team is that what they consider to be a minor scuffle on a wing is actually getting perilously close to a full-scale prison riot during which inmates and staff get injured. Regrettably, it is probably only a matter of time before someone is killed, in all probability a con, although it could be an officer.
The latest incident to be reported – and I use that term advisedly, since the national media seems to be colluding with the MOJ and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to play down the evidence of the serious crisis currently engulfing many of our prisons – took place on Tuesday evening at HMP Humber (formerly Everthorpe and Wolds), a Cat-C male prison in East Yorkshire. So far, only the local press – the Hull Daily Mail – is giving the story any coverage (read here). However, it is significant that the paper has headlined its story using the term ‘riot’ – something that will go down very badly with the MOJ which prefers to use the less politically embarrassing euphemism ‘disturbance’.
I wonder if this case will now follow the pattern established following the protests at HMP High Down in October 2013 when there seems to have been what amounted to a media blackout other than a story or two in the local press. Even when the eleven protesters had been charged with the serious offence of prison mutiny and brought before the court only the local Sutton Guardian published a word about the trial – which ended in a unanimous acquittal by the jury. Eventually other media titles recognised the wider political significance and a couple of nationals have run stories, albeit well after the event.
|HMP Humber: a sleeping lion wakes|
As reported, the incident at HMP Humber followed a pretty standard format. At around 6.30 pm when the prisoners were ordered back in their cells for evening bang up, on two wings they refused to obey the orders of wing staff. According to inside information given to the local paper – presumably by staff working at the prison or their union reps – around 30 cons were involved in a standoff that lasted around seven hours during which staff were allegedly “pelted with excrement”.
Most of the information in the public domain has come from comments made by Peter McParlin, the chair of the Prison Officers Association (POA). He went on the record to describe the incident as “very serious”. He also demanded the prosecution of the protesters.
|CPS: not falling for it a second time?|
Oh dear. It seems that Mr McParlin really hasn’t learned the lessons of the ‘High Down 11’ trial yet. As Mr Grayling discovered to his cost a couple of weeks ago, these days English juries really can’t be relied upon to convict protesting cons solely because the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is persuaded to charge them. Moreover, such trials cost enormous amounts of public money only to see the grinning prisoners in the dock found not guilty by sympathetic jurors who don’t like what they are hearing in evidence about deteriorating conditions in our jails.
There are also political considerations involved. What tends to happen during these jury trials is that a great deal of inside information comes to light about the impact of the massive budget cuts and vindictive policies that the MOJ and NOMS would rather not have aired in public. Put on the spot, governors on oath in the witness box just can’t be counted on to toe the Grayling party line that “there is no crisis” in our prisons. In fact, quite the opposite: they tell the truth.
|POA: a cunning plan?|
Of course, Mr McParlin might also be playing his own cunning strategy. The POA likes nothing better than the welcome glare of adverse publicity when it is focused on the swingeing cuts in the number of frontline prison officers and the resultant rise in violence, self-harm, suicides, easy availability of drugs and the likelihood of even more severe future prison riots. Perhaps encouraged by the outcome of the ‘High Down 11’ fiasco, Mr McParlin might have seen a golden opportunity to give the MOJ and NOMS another good kicking from the safety of the witness box by highlighting the dire consequences of staff shortages.
One of the probable legacies of the High Down case is that mass show trials of prisoners – around 30 in this incident – really aren’t a great idea. Unless serious injury has resulted, especially to screws, or there really has been a massive amount of structural damage to the wings, then I doubt Mr McParlin (or his POA members) will have their day in court this time round.
From the description of the scale of the HMP Humber riot, I would be very surprised if the police and CPS really fancy another enormous own goal in court. If they have learned anything from the HMP High Down case it is probably that prison ‘disturbances’ are best dealt with behind closed doors, either by governors handing out minor penalties to cons who have refused to obey lawful orders or, in more serious cases, by referring the charge to an independent adjudicator (a district judge) who has the power to add extra days – up to 28 – to any existing sentence.
Unlike juries, governors and adjudicators won’t be swayed by issues such as protests over poor prison conditions, cancellation of activities or long periods of bang up. They’ve heard it all before. Such quasi-judicial hearings take place in private, inside prison walls and no-one outside is any the wiser, especially the national media and no doubt that’s just the way ‘Crisis’ Chris and his merry men would like it to stay.