Saturday, October 15, 2005

The devilish advocate

UK: The devilish advocate John Hirst taught himself law in jail, and has never lost a case against the prison service. Erwin James meets up again with the former 'lifer' who won inmates the right to vote

It began as an act of "devilment", explains John Hirst, the 55-year-old former prisoner who last week defeated the government in the European Court of Human Rights on the issue of voting rights for convicted prisoners.

I'm sharing a sofa with him in the cramped, untidy sitting room of the three-bedroom terraced house in Hull that he rents from a private landlord for £60 a week. He works casually, as a driver. His only company in the house is his dog, a lively labrador cross called Rocky - a "rescue dog" - that is clearly loathe to be out of his new owner's sight even for a moment.

"It was October 2000 and I'd been listening to the news in my cell when it came on that the Human Rights Act had been incorporated into UK law, he recalls. "I thought, 'Right!', and I went down the landing and spoke to a couple of other lifers. They were two grumpy old men who always sat at the same table during association, but I knew they had a little bit of legal knowledge. I said: 'Do you fancy setting up a union?' One said: 'They won't allow that.' I said: 'They can't stop us now, we've got the Human Rights Act.'"

In fact he ended up setting up an association, instead of a union, because, he explains, it sounded "less threatening". And here is the devilment. After searching through his library of law books, built up over the 20 years he had already spent inside, he discovered that anyone could set up an association in direct opposition to any other association that was already in existence. "It was obvious," he says, still tickled by the memory. "Prison officers had the Prison Officers' Association, the POA, so I thought, we'll have the AOP, the Association of Prisoners."

As is the way in prison, word got around fast, and soon the minimum of 10 members necessary to form an association had been recruited. After agreeing on a constitution, the members met in Hirst's cell to plan objectives. Somebody suggested pushing for better food. Somebody else proposed conjugal rights. But Hirst had a better idea. "It was when someone mentioned that we should try and lobby the House of Commons," he says. "I'd read about interest groups lobbying and pressuring politicians to change things, but I knew that, as prisoners, we weren't allowed to vote. It was obvious that politicians only take notice of people who do have the vote - that's why there's never been any real will in parliament to take prison reform seriously. I decided to find out why we weren't allowed to vote."

During his research, he read books on the British constitution and studied the suffragette movement. Eventually, he felt confident enough to mount a legal challenge to the government. It wasn't the first time that he had decided to take legal action to address his grievances in prison.

Hirst was sent to prison for life after being convicted of the manslaughter of his landlady, Bronia Burton, in 1979. She had asked Hirst to bring in some coal. Hirst felt he was being "nagged". He says this caused him to "snap" and attack Burton, hitting her several times on the head with the blunt end of an axe taken from the garden shed. After hearing all the evidence, the court found that he had acted with "diminished responsibility". He eventually received a tariff of 15 years, but served a total of 25 before being released in October last year. He believes his activities as a litigant against the Prison Service and Home Office are the main reason he had to serve the extra years.

Locked in solitary

Hirst proved to be the most prolific prisoner litigant of modern times - and, he says, like Perry Mason and Rumpole of the Bailey, he never lost a case against the Prison Service. He won the right of prisoners on segregation punishment to keep their beds in their cells during the day, and overturned the blanket ban on prisoners communicating with the media. He also, after he was kept locked in solitary for 28 days without a break, successfully sued a prison governor for "malfeasance in public office".

It took Hirst a while to settle into prison life. He quickly gained a reputation as a "difficult" prisoner who would stand up against the authorities if he felt that things were not as they should be. "I've always been someone who questions," he says.

There are clues in Hirst's early years that give some indication of the attitude he exhibited in prison. He was born in Hull in 1950. A year later, his mother gave birth to his brother, and soon afterwards his father left home. A year after that, unable to cope with the children, his mother handed him and his brother into the care of a Dr Barnardo's home in South Yorkshire. By the time he was seven, he and his brother were in their fourth foster parent placement and Hirst had a history of bed wetting and soiling. "We were all over the place," he says.

His bad behaviour caused the foster parents to send him back to the institution, but he would return intermittently for holidays. When he was 10, a primary school teacher described him as "vulnerable, easily hurt, good sense of humour, never bored or fed up, willing, with a nice social manner, very loving to animals". Yet by the time he was 13, his foster mother reported her concerns about Hirst's temperament. "John gets furious easily," she said, adding that she was "afraid of what he might do". Incidences of "pilfering" and general bad behaviour continued to be reported.

He left secondary school at 15, with no qualifications, and got a job as page boy in a city hotel. Two months later he was dismissed for "extreme impudence", after arguing about the sugar allocation for the porters. Afterwards, he embarked on a life of casual work and petty crime. "Building sites, burglary and car theft," he says. A series of prison terms, ranging from six months to five years, followed until he was 30, when he was sentenced to life. "The wetting and soiling never stopped until I went to prison," he says.

As a lifer, he was moved around the system regularly, and frequently spent periods in prison segregation units. In 1989, he attacked a prison officer. He says that on that day the officer had "offered out" (challenged to a fight) a number of prisoners. Hirst was working as a food- serving orderly, and one of the "perks" was extra milk for his cornflakes. The officer stopped the extra milk and, when Hirst argued, he says the officer offered him out. The ensuing violence left the officer in an intensive care unit for some days. Hirst was segregated immediately and later transferred to a special high security unit in Hull prison.

The unit was experimental, designed to hold at most a dozen prisoners marked down as being among the most difficult and dangerous in the system. Ironically, the unit provided prisoners with better treatment and conditions than would have been available to them otherwise.

Hirst began to read more. Stephen Shaw, now prisons ombudsman but then director of the Prison Reform Trust, visited the unit and gave Hirst a copy of a book published by the trust, Prison Rules: A Working Guide. Armed with the correct information, he successfully sued the prison governor for compensation regarding a quantity of his property that had disappeared during his earlier transfer. "The first law book I read was on administrative law," he says. "I opened it up on a chapter on power and the abuse of power. I thought: 'This is what prison is all about.' Suddenly, my brain seemed to kick into gear. I wanted more books. I had them sent in, or teachers would bring them for me. My brain was insatiable for knowledge of the law." So does he see himself as anti-authority. "Not at all," he says. "I'm just anti the abuse of authority."

As we talk, I am reminded of the time that I knew John Hirst when we were fellow prisoners on the same wing in a closed prison in 1994. I didn't know him well, but I knew of his formidable reputation for legal knowledge. Everybody on the wing knew where his cell was. He had a sign on his cell door: Prison Law Centre. Underneath, another sign proclaimed: Free Legal Advice. Every morning before breakfast he had a queue outside his cell waiting patiently to take advantage of his legal skills and his straining shelves of law books.

Legal eagle

Hirst did not discriminate. Even prison officers were known to open his door occasionally during "bang up" to ask for advice on problems affecting them inside or outside the prison, and the self-taught legal eagle was always happy to assist - although not all prison officials were impressed. A psychologist reported that he "showed no remorse for the people he had litigated against".

His first success in the property case marked the beginning of a preoccupation with the law and prison conditions that has left modern law books littered with dozens of references to his cases: Hirst v (numerous prison governors), Hirst v Secretary of State for the Home Department; and, in relation to last week's ECHR judgment, Hirst v UK.

When I get up to leave, the dog bounds into action, yelping and excited for some exercise. "Shut up, Rocky," Hirst says gently, stroking and hugging the animal. "Silly dog." I ask him about his plans for the future. "I'm going to keep on fighting," he says. Any regrets? "No," he says, and then thinks for a second and adds: "Well, just one. If I could go back to the night of the offence and change it, I would."

By Erwin James posted 15 October 05

UK prisoners should get vote, European court rules

UK: Laws setting out who can and cannot take part in elections are to be rewritten after the European court of human rights today ruled in favour of giving British prisoners the right to vote.


Racism still rife in jails, five years after the murder of Zahid Mubarek UK: The prison service will be strongly criticised for continued racial discrimination against ethnic minority inmates by the official report from the Zahid Mubarek inquiry.

UK prisoners should get vote, European court rules
UK: Laws setting out who can and cannot take part in elections are to be rewritten after the European court of human rights today ruled in favour of giving British prisoners the right to vote.

Prison plan 'will cut reoffending'
UK: A network of community prisons to help cut the number of criminals who re-offend has been outlined by Home Secretary Charles Clarke.

Clarke to scrap plan to peg prison numbers
UK: The home secretary, Charles Clarke, has said he is to abandon his predecessor's aspiration of pegging the prison population in England and Wales at 80,000. He will also drop plans to put a legal obligation on the judges' sentencing guidelines council to take the size of the prison population - currently 77,000 and rising - into account when laying down the "going rate" for major crimes.

Crowded jails 'boosting suicides'
UK: The chief inspector of prisons warned that an overcrowding crisis in Britain's jails was leading to an increase in prisoner suicides.

Chief justice calls for new approach to law and order
UK: The retiring [ruling class] lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, made a passionate plea for a new approach to law and order which would see a major shift away from punishment towards the solution of problems which generate crime.

Britain's only prison ship ends up on the beach
UK: The last inmates have departed and a skeleton staff is left guarding Britain's only prison ship - in case anyone is minded to break in rather than out.

Throw away the key
The one profession to get results on recidivism has been sacrificed to Labour's desire to lock up criminals in private prisons.

Judges' misdeeds will remain secret
UK: Judges who are disciplined for bad behaviour will not have the findings against them made public under a complaints regime to be launched next year.

Prisoner total rises 15% in six years
England and Wales are continuing to jail offenders at a higher rate than any other major country in western Europe, it emerged today. New research indicates that the government's use of prison as its main tool of penal policy has increased by 15% since 1999.

CPS drops prosecution over death in custody
UK: The family of Roger Sylvester, who died after being restrained by police officers, yesterday expressed their disappointment at a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service not to prosecute any of the officers involved.

Prisoner's cell death
UK: A prisoner was found hanged in his cell last week, the Home Office said, fuelling criticism over the soaring number of suicides in custody.

Plans for five new 'superprisons'
Recent figures show a total of 75,550 prisoners were held in 139 jails in England and Wales, nudging up the previous record of April 2004 by just six inmates.

Prison has lost its way - report
UK: Bristol prison is suffering wide-ranging problems because of inconsistent management, the Chief Inspector of Prisons has said.

Row over acupuncture for prisoners
UK: The Home Office has responded to criticism over prison inmates who are being offered acupuncture on the NHS in order to relieve stress.

Number of prisoners sent back to jail trebles
UK: The number of prisoners being sent back to jail after release has nearly trebled in the past five years, according to a report published today.

Top judge says crowded prisons cannot break cycle of crime
UK: Reoffending rates after a prison sentence are at an "unacceptably high level" and the failure of the criminal justice system to stop prisoners reoffending should shock the public, England's top judge, [Ruling Class] Lord Woolf, said last week.

All the World's a Prison: History
No doubt many of my readers, even those who are well-educated or widely read, think that the prison -- the place where dark deeds are darkly answered[2] -- is an ancient institution, a barbaric hold-over from barbaric times. In fact, the prison is of relatively recent origin, and this tells us a great deal about the pretentions and realities of modern times, and the wisdom and high degree of development of the ancients.

Decade after inspector left in disgust, report tells of filth
UK: Dirty, mice-infested cells, high levels of self-harm, and widespread bullying over drugs and medications were just some of the damning findings of a report into conditions at Holloway, Britain's largest women's prison.

Most women 'should not be jailed'
Women make up 6% of the prison population in England and Wales. Imprisonment of women should be "virtually abolished", a prison reform group has said.

Youth 'murdered for officers' pleasure'
UK: An Asian teenager was murdered by a white racist after they were placed in the same cell as part of a game to fulfil the "perverted pleasure" of prison officers, a public inquiry heard on Friday.

Deaths in isolation as prison segregation increases
The use of segregation [solitary confinement] of prisoners as punishment has been increasing recently in Australia, the US, and the UK. Segregation can be used for protection or punishment, but in both cases it results in extreme psychological stress. An indication that segregation is being over-used is the appearance of deaths in custody from suicide of those placed in segregation.

Inquest blames jail for overdose death
UK: An inquest jury returned a verdict itemising a catalogue of faults at Styal prison in Cheshire, concluding that the prison's "failure of duty of care" contributed to the death of Sarah Campbell, 18, who took an overdose of tablets on the first day of her three-year sentence.

Put in the way of self-harm in a place intended to protect others
UK: Sarah Campbell, 18, spent the last hours of her life in the segregation unit of Styal prison, Cheshire. "The seg", as those places are referred to, used to be known as "the block", short for punishment block. [ Seg is a bullshit word for Punishment, Solitary Confinement, Torture, Mental Illness, Self-Harm, Human Rights Abuse and that is State Terror.]

Britain 'sliding into police state'
The home secretary, Charles Clarke, is transforming Britain into a police state, one of the country's former leading anti-terrorist police chiefs [false flag police chiefs] said yesterday.

UK solitary confinement
UK: Segregation units are prisons within prisons - the places where the most unchecked brutality is meted out to prisoners. In recent years conditions in high security segregation units have deteriorated, and the use of long-term segregation as a control mechanism has increased.

Inquiry must root out prison racists
UK: It is difficult to imagine a more brutal murder than that of Zahid Mubarek. The 19-year-old was clubbed to death by his cellmate at Feltham Young Offender Institution in the early hours of 21 March 2000. He was due to be released just a few hours later.

Prison suicides soar as jails hire 'babysitters'
UK: Prison officers are being taken off suicide watch and replaced by unqualified 'babysitters' because the system is overwhelmed by an epidemic of self-harm.

Plan to sell off juvenile jails as job lot
UK: The government is to put out to tender all its dedicated juvenile jails that hold children under 18 in a departure in Whitehall's privatisation programme.

Failure to sack 'racist' prison staff condemned
UK: Two prison officers suspended for racism are still on full pay three years after a stash of Nazi memorabilia, neo-fascist literature and Ku Klux Klan-inspired 'nigger-hunting licences' was found in a police raid on their home.

Report slams 'unjust' jailing of women on remand
UK: Six out of 10 women sent to jail while they await trial are acquitted or given a non-custodial sentence, a report published today reveals. Introducing the report, Lady Kennedy QC calls for a complete review of the use of remand and bail for women saying it is "inhumane and unjust".

Concern as UK prison suicides hit record level
UK: More prisoners took their own lives in English jails in August than in any other month since records began, prison reformers said today.

End of years of despair as Holloway closes its doors
But now Holloway prison in north London - where Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain, was hanged in 1955 - has been earmarked for closure, along with several other women's prisons, which have been hit by a spate of suicides.

How detox and self-help brought suicide jail back from the brink
UK: Six suicides in 12 months made Styal jail notorious and the Prisons Ombudsman criticised the prison and its staff for serious failures. But things are changing.

Belmarsh detainees consider suicide, says freed man
UK: The first of the Muslim detainees released from Belmarsh high security prison after being held on suspicion of terrorism has told the Guardian his fellow prisoners are suffering such severe mental problems that they constantly consider suicide.

Suicides and unrest have soared, admits Home Office
UK:The already overcrowded prison population is set to go on rising and will top 80,000 within the next three years, a senior Home Office civil servant warned yesterday.

England tops the EU in imprisonment
England and Wales jail more offenders per capita than any other European, Union country, according to new figures.