Keeping people in prison for maintaining their innocence;

Talking of unjust and prolonged detention, the press reported on 20 June yet another case of a man who had been convicted of murder, received the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment, recommended by the Parole Board for release as being no longer dangerous, but kept in prison because of the Home Secretary (Jack Straw at the time) overruling the Parole Board's finding. (Myra Hindley is another victim of the cowardice of successive Home Secretaries, unwilling to brave the tabloids' wrath by choosing justice above popularity.) It took a decision of the European Court of Human Rights to disqualify the Home Secretary from counteracting the Parole Board's decision. There are several reasons for querying whether the original conviction was safe and whether the man's defence (that he was defending himself against a racial attack) was adequately presented at his trial. He served 15 years in prison, nearly two of them after the Parole Board's finding that he could safely be released. Still, he was lucky that he had a Parole Board willing to propose his release despite his continuing refusal to "admit his guilt". Another man, Robert Brown, has been in jail for 25 years for allegedly murdering a woman in Manchester in 1977. His conviction relied mainly on his confession, allegedly made under police pressure and later retracted. As Marcel Berlins wrote in the Guardian (18 June), "He could have been released many years ago, but he can't or won't get parole because he continues to assert his innocence." Frank Johnson, 66, has just been released after 26 years in jail, his conviction having been quashed as unsafe by the Court of Appeal. His solicitor commented: "Mr Johnson could have been out years ago had he acknowledged guilt… He has consistently said that he would do no such thing. If his conviction had not been quashed today, one could imagine that he might have remained in prison for the rest of his life." This repulsive principle—that unless you confess your guilt, you can't get parole, even if you're innocent—has a strong smell of Catch 22 about it, and an even stronger whiff of Kafka. It has repeatedly been condemned as patently monstrous, yet it has still not been abolished. No doubt one day the European Court of Human Rights will strike it down since, as shamingly often happens, we can't be trusted to do it ourselves.  (For another example, see the Ephem for 21 January 2002 on Stephen Downing.)

2 Responses

  1. paul blackburn says:

    I spent 25 years in prison until i was released & won my appeal. We have just finished a play for  BBC Radio 4 called 2 "In Denial" that will be broadcast on March 16th 2007 at 9pm. Please listen in and please pass the word. Thankyou 

  2. Bob says:

    I have great sympathy with Paul and men like him, kept in prison by the cowardice of politicians despite the willingness of parole boards to release them on licence, regardless of any admission of guilt. In the course of several years as a voluntary worker in a large London prison I have come across similar cases to his – but mostly in the somewhat different context of sex offenders ( most of whom have been found guilty of rape or paedophilia). Some of these men continue to deny their guilt despite having been found guilty in court, and this has serious consequences for them because they are not permitted to take the Sex Offender Treatment Programme without first admitting guilt. The SOTP is designed to help them understand the inappropriateness / seriousness of their actions and to help them develop attitudes and behaviour patterns to avoid committing similar offences in future. Without completing this course they have no prospect of early release on licence or – even more relevant in some cases – of transfer to a more open, training prison, where they can start to re-design their life. The difficulty for prison staff – officers, psychologists, et al – is that much as they might like to help a prisoner, they can’t start to do so if he refuses to accept his guilt as determined by the court. They can’t re-try him, and have no option but to classify him as being ‘ in denial’ . My experience is that there are more sex offenders in denial than not guilty. The former have their own personal, religious, societal and other reasons for refusing to acknowledge their crime; the latter are the tragic victims of a judicial system in which false testimony, bad evidence, poor lawyers and human error are sadly still present. PS: Prison staff have the unenviable job of trying to look after both these minority categories of prisoner,  both of them unhappy with their incarceration and liable to explode because of it. This is on top of their normal duties with the  vast majority of prisoners who accept their guilt and get on with their sentences as best they can.

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