|Off limits to prisoners|
The reasons aren’t hard to understand. Photos taken by prisoners inside prisons are illegal under the Offender Management Act (2007), since smart phones and cameras are prohibited in jails by law anyway (even for staff members). Occasionally, officially-sanctioned films or photographs are taken inside, but this requires various permissions to be obtained well in advance.
I know because I was once part of a filming project in an open prison. It had been given the green light by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) and had the active support of the No 1 governor. I was given a digital camera with which to interview fellow cons (and even a couple of members of staff who had volunteered to appear). The controls were very tight, however, and the finished documentary was very carefully vetted by senior management before anyone else actually
got to view it.
|Banned, but available|
Even worse are images or film clips of prisoners being really naughty: fight clubs, dealing or using drugs, handling wads of illicit cash or even weapons. Any of these might give the impression that our prisons are deep in crisis, with the authorities losing control while wings are awash with drugs, violence and illicit mobile phones. Which they are, of course.
Although the Daily Mail and similar tabloids do enjoy publishing a good prisons scoop focusing on photos of prisoners ‘living the high life’, using Playstations in their cells or just flexing their bulging muscles for the camera, it’s also true that victims of crime have a reasonable expectation that they won’t be reading The Sun one morning only to see pictures of the thug who bashed them or a loved one (or much worse) grinning out at them or pumping iron. It’s a fair bet that finding similar images on social media rubs even more salt in their wounds.
All that I fully understand. Like a surprisingly high number of prisoners (or ex-prisoners) I’ve also been a victim of serious crime myself in the past and I’m sure that finding ‘cell-fies’ of the perpetrators all over the show while they were in prison would have annoyed me and upset members of my family too. Please don’t get the idea that I’m advocating or supporting such behaviour. I don’t.
However, this post has been written in response to a couple of recent incidents. Late last week a short film made by two serving prisoners at HMP Bullingdon in Oxfordshire hit the media. They’d made this in their cell last October using an illicit mobile phone. They barely concealed their faces with makeshift masks, but it was clear to anyone who has been inside that this was a genuine production from behind bars. Having been posted on YouTube, it made the national news (Link here).
|Inside HMP Bullingdon|
Now, it is clear that these prisoners were breaking both the law and the Prison Rules, but unlike the numpties who post ‘cell-fies’ of themselves surrounded by canteen goods or taking drugs or gloating at their crimes and victims, they were trying to draw the attention of the outside world to the crisis that has engulfed our prison system during the past few years. Their clip has already attracted supportive comments on YouTube and – perhaps more surprisingly – even from a few serving prison officers on social media who agree with their assessments of the rising tide of violence and anarchy, even if they don’t condone the secret filming. At a time when media access to our dysfunctional prisons has been all but banned by the MOJ for several years, these brief insights can shine a spotlight on just how bad the situation has become across the prison estate.
Of course, it wasn’t difficult for the prison authorities at HMP Bullingdon to identify and punish them, but in reality I think they are actually doing the general public a service by providing a truthful glimpse into the dark and dangerous world behind bars, fuelled by the twin evils of overcrowding and understaffing. What they revealed is what most of those of us who have recent prison experience already know only too well. Now it’s time that there was a much wider acknowledgement of the prisons crisis.
|Prisons are awash with drugs|
A serving prisoner has been accused of updating his Facebook page and, following complaints, it has been removed and the individual concerned is facing disciplinary action. However – and this is the key issue – it isn’t clear that he was responsible for the posts. The Facebook photo in question, which is being used by the newspaper that reported the story, certainly doesn’t look like a typical prison cell selfie. It may well turn out that a member of his family or a friend had access to his account and did the updates.
Then I checked the official UK Government website GOV.UK which includes pages maintained by the Ministry of Justice (Link here). This provides information entitled Staying in Touch with Someone in Prison. There are various sections, but my attention was drawn to that which deals with the internet and social media. This states very clearly: “You mustn’t update any social networking website (eg Facebook or Twitter) on the prisoner’s behalf.”
Now, while this might be open to various interpretations, it appears to be a pretty direct assault on the rights of free speech of prisoners’ families and friends. They are only bound by the Prison Act and Prison Rules when they are actually inside the prison, for example for a visit. NOMS and the MOJ clearly do not have any lawful business telling members of the public what they may or may not post on social media sites. This is not based on any legislation that has been passed in Parliament, nor is it legally enforceable in any way.
|NOMS: is it going too far this time?|
Now, a great many of these campaign sites have regular updates or messages of thanks from prisoners who have posted them out to their families or supporters to be uploaded, or who have shared information via the telephone. The rights of prisoners who are maintaining innocence or who are keen to contribute to debates about criminal justice or the penal system are well-established in law, as well as acknowledged in the relevant Prison Service Instruction (PSI 37/2010: Prisoners’ Access to the Media).
|Be afraid. Be very afraid...|
However, none of this applies in any way to prisoners’ family members, friends or supporters. They are not subject to the PSIs or Prison Rules in respect of whatever they wish to publish or post online outside of the prison. There are no legal sanctions that can be applied to them other, perhaps, than banning them from visiting or corresponding with a prisoner – and even this would be subject to robust legal challenges. Despite this, the official government information website sees fit to try and impose a blanket ban that surely must interfere with people who are non-prisoners and their rights to enjoy free speech and expression.
What is of even greater concern is the rather sinister way in which these ‘rules’ are couched. The implication, as I see it, is that prisoners might be found responsible for anything their family updates or posts on website or profiles that are out of the prisoner’s immediate control from their cell.
|Shackling prisoners' families?|
This clearly ignores the possibility that some prisoners have shared their passwords with partners or others before they were sent to prison. If these cases go to internal adjudication, will prisoners’ family members or their friends be allowed to give evidence (oral or written) as to the circumstances in which a specific profile or social media account was updated or accessed?
|The black tape of censorship|
However, to my mind the information currently on the government website about prisoners and social media is a step too far. It is very likely unlawful, as well as misleading. That is why I’ve launched the #NoToGovesGag campaign on Twitter. This section of the GOV.UK website needs urgently to be rewritten so it makes it clear that prisoners’ family and friends cannot be silenced or intimidated when posting material relating to their loved one who is in custody. Please support so that this attempt to bully prisoners’ families can be stopped in its tracks.