Thursday, 21 January 2016

Say No to Gove's Gag

Although the rapid spread of social media via various platforms is something most of us take for granted these days, British prisons remain steadfast in their battle to prevent – or at least dissuade – serving prisoners from accessing or updating their profiles, particularly on Facebook and Twitter. As frequent news reports suggest, this is a battle the authorities appear to be losing despite the introduction of tougher penalties for prisoners caught with illicit mobile phones.

Off limits to prisoners
Since the vast majority of prisoners have no legitimate access to the internet – other than those in open conditions when released on temporary licence (ROTL) – it follows logically that they shouldn’t be able to post selfies, status updates, comments on others’ posts etc. In fact, according to current ROTL licences, even when they have been released temporarily, prisoners are still barred from logging on to Facebook and similar sites.

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
When it comes to anything that hasn’t been approved, however, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and NOMS are completely paranoid. In recent years there has been much concern about negative media coverage of prisoners posting ‘cell-fies’ (as they are nicknamed) of cons messing around in their cells or on landings.

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
Basically, the lads were doing their best to blow the whistle on what is really going on inside our closed prisons. They highlighted deteriorating living conditions, appalling hygiene problems, that there were too few staff to run the prison safely, that drugs and violence were rampant on their wing, as was bullying and robbery. As one of them remarked: “If you treat us like animals, we’re gonna act like animals.”

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
Readers might be wondering by now why I’ve entitled this post Say No to Gove’s Gag. The reason is that there was another prison and social media story this week (Link here).

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?
What also concerns me is that this blanket statement – which is specifically intended to inform prisoners’ families and friends about the prison system and how it works – seems to imply that the ban extends to all forms of social media for all purposes if they are acting on the prisoner’s behalf. Many prisoners, particularly those who are steadfastly maintaining innocence, do have websites, blogs or Facebook profiles that promote their cause or try to attract the attention of investigative journalists and the wider media. Some prisoners’ supporters are very active on Twitter, raising a wide range of issues. While I can understand that the MOJ and NOMS are not keen on such activity, let alone blogs by serving prisoners who are drawing attention to poor or dangerous conditions in our prisons, that is not an argument for putting pressure, overtly or covertly, on prisoners' families or supporters in order to silence them or prevent them sharing what they have been told by people on the inside.

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...
This PSI details the ways in which serving prisoners are permitted to contact journalists and the various permissions that must be sought and obtained before they can have face-to-face interviews within prisons. Material written by the prisoner for publication must similarly be vetted, especially to censor any references to staff members or other prisoners. This also specifically includes material intended to be posted on the internet.

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?
As in the recent case of the prisoner who faces disciplinary action and punishment as a result of his Facebook profile being updated, there now seems to be an attempt to reverse the burden of proof onto the prisoner to ‘prove’ that he or she did not have an illicit mobile phone in their possession, or even that they didn’t ‘authorise’ or approve any posts made by members of their families or their friends outside in the community.

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?

In this case Facebook – never slow to bow to official pressure – has also deleted the prisoner’s profile. Although its terms of use do specifically exclude convicted sex offenders from having profiles, this person isn’t in that position. It seems that he has been tried, found guilty and his online presence deleted as a punishment by Facebook even before the prison system’s disciplinary procedures have been followed or he has been found to have broken any rules. This alone should cause concern about censorship and Facebook’s relationship with the MOJ.

The black tape of censorship
Unfortunately, NOMS and HM Prison Service has a long and undistinguished history when it comes to mistreatment and bullying of prisoners’ families. It often seems that when one member of a family has been convicted of an offence and imprisoned, it follows that their relatives must all be subjected to various humiliations and collective punishments, especially when it comes to visiting their loved ones in jail.

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.


  1. I'm still amazed that in an era when prisons are allegedly so short staffed that prisoners are locked up 23 hours a day as there are allegedly not enough staff for a normal routine that HMPS has more than sufficient staff to constantly monitor the entire prison population's social media to see if any of them have been updated. It appears HMPS is putting resources into the wrong areas

  2. Through my time inside my mum kept my Twitter and Facebook accounts active by logging in and posting from time to time (sometimes posting things I suggested). This didn't seem to cause any problems.
    Strangely, Facebook let this happen until a month or two before my release, at which point they closed my account (yes, because I was convicted of a sexual offence). I do find their ban on sex offenders ridiculous as the term covers so many different offences and they don't mind any other sort of offence - some of which could actually be committed on the site!