The governments Legal Aid and Punishment Act 2012 which came into effect in April 2013 represents one of the Tories most serious and vicious attacks on the poorest and most disadvantaged groups in terms of their relationship with an increasingly more repressive state, removing as it does the right to publicly funded legal redress for the already most powerless in society.
The Act also targets prison litigation, which right-wing Justice Minister Chris Grayling claims is “unnecessary and frivolous”. In fact, the Act attacks what were previously legally enforceable basic rights for people in prison and now creates a total legal vacuum as far as those rights are concerned whilst encouraging the prison authorities to do exactly as it pleases with those in it’s custody. Andrew Neilson of the Howard League for Penal Reform has warned that “without prisoners being able to access legal aid we may see a collapse in justice in the very place where it should be paramount – within prison walls”.
In the hidden and secretive world of prison there exists something that resembles a totalitarian society where those who hold the keys have an almost omnipotent degree of power over those whom they guard and lock-up; inevitably that power is frequently and often grievously abused. If prisoners are denied the right and opportunity to seek legal redress if their basic human rights are abused then they will exist in a condition of civil death. In some places within the prison system prisoners do indeed exist in such a condition, like those held in the infamous “Close Supervision Centres (CSCs)”. Created in 1998 to supposedly manage the most “difficult” and “challenging” prisoners, the CSCs very soon descended into places of brutality and extreme cruelty, especially for the disproportionate number of mentally ill prisoners who were dumped in them. Those operating and managing the CSCs were confident that by labelling those confined within them as “the worst of the worst” the courts would turn a blind eye to their treatment, and there would be few if any amongst the prisoners themselves psychologically capable of legally challenging their treatment.
In the case of Kevan Thakrar they were seriously wrong. An extremely intelligent, articulate and determined litigious prisoner Kevan has throughout his time in prison constantly confronted and challenged the prison system’s abuse of power both on his own behalf and on the behalf of other prisoners. It was therefore inevitable that sooner or later he would be consigned to a CSC, and in his case by an extremely traumatic and dramatic route.
During 2008 Kevan was in the mainstream prisoner population at Woodhill Prison in Milton Keynes where he repeatedly questioned and challenged abuses of power by prison staff. On the 31st May 2008 a gang of prison officers decided to teach him a very direct and painful lesson in compliance to their authority, and entering his cell they physically beat him up. The incident, apart from the physical injuries, would leave him with the much more permanent mental scar of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Following his beating up he immediately complained to the local Thames Valley Police, who quite simply refused to investigate his complaint. He then tried to use the internal prisons complaint procedure, a mechanism that in terms of investigating fairly staff misconduct is wholly flawed and useless, basically because prison staff themselves determine and decide the extent and outcome of the “investigation”. Predictably his complaint was treated with contempt and basically suppressed. At this point most prisoners usually give-up on trying to air a complaint through the official channels, which is exactly the real function and purpose of the prison complaints procedure, providing of course that prisoners will then learn the lesson that complaining about their treatment is useless. Kevan, however, pursued his complaint to the Prisons and Probation Service Ombudsman, a body supposedly independent of the prison system and originally created following a recommendation from the Wolf report and investigation into the causes of the Strangeways prison uprising in 1990. By now a thoroughly compromised and discredited body it failed even to conduct an appearance of an investigation into his complaint. So he took his complaint further, to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, Iain Stewart M.P., complaining specifically about the abject failure of the Prisons and Probation Service Ombudsman to conduct any sort of investigation into staff brutality at Woodhill prison. On the 29 June 2012 the Parliamentary Ombudsman upheld Kevan’s complaint, describing the behaviour of the Prisons and Probation Service Ombudsman in relation to Kevan’s complaint as “maladministration” and an “injustice” to Kevan. The behaviour of the prison officers at Woodhill jail, however, went uninvestigated and unpunished. Soon after his beating-up at Woodhill Kevan was “ghosted” around the prison system for a while before being transferred to Frankland prison in 2010. Frankland, a Maximum-Security jail near Durham, long had a reputation for staff violence and racism, and to whom Kevan, a mixed-race prisoner with a reputation of making complaints, would represent an absolute focus and target for their hatred. It’s probable that Kevan was deliberately sent there for exactly that reason. Predictably, soon after his arrival at Frankland Kevan indeed became a target for racist abuse by staff there, which he confronted and complained about repeatedly. And as at Woodhill a gang of prison officers one day entered his cell with the intention of teaching him a painful lesson concerning who’s in charge, but this time he fought back. Re-enforcements were summoned and he was “restrained”, i.e. brutally worked-over. He was then criminally prosecuted for seriously assaulting the 3 prison officers who had initially entered his cell. At his subsequent trial at Newcastle Crown Court during October/November 2011 Kevan pleaded not guilty on the grounds that his behaviour when the prison officers entered his cell at Frankland was conditioned by what had taken place at Woodhill, the cause of his PTSD. Dramatically, a psychiatrist originally hired by the prosecution effectively changed sides during the trial and supported Kevan’s PTSD defence. He was acquitted by the jury, to the fury of the Prison Officers Association who initially threatened to try and instigate a private prosecution against him, and then no doubt decided to leave it to their members at the cutting edge of repression to extract a more personal revenge. After his trail Kevan was transferred to the CSC at Woodhill prison, despite the Not Guilty verdict and evidence that his psychological condition required proper treatment as opposed to repression and brutality, something that intrinsically defined and characterised the regime in the CSCs. There was never any doubt that Kevan was sent to the CSC at Woodhill to be detained indefinitely, and not gradually “assessed” and “progressed” back to the mainstream prison population, the official rational and justification for sending “difficult” prisoners to the CSCs.
A crude Pavolovian system of “Rewards and Punishments” exists in the CSCs, provided with the necessary legitimacy by prison system employed and corrupted behavioural psychologists, who in fact rarely visit the CSCs, even to assess the condition of the many mentally-ill prisoners confined there; they are employed simply to provide a legitimate cover for the systematic abuse of human rights carried out within the CSCs.
The various levels of “supervision” or their intensity (the basic level of “supervision” involves the prisoner being held in clinical isolation, or solitary confinement, and denied all human contact, apart from that with a gang of prison officers clad in full riot gear whenever the prisoner’s cell is unlocked for his one hour of statutory exercise, weather permitting, inside an outdoor cage) are determined by how the prisoner responds to the austere and cruel regime operating in the CSCs. Compliance is rewarded with gradual “progression” to less punishing levels of “supervision” and control, until one graduates back to mainstream prison life. Defiance, on the other hand, is punished by a prolonged stay within the most repressive conditions; Kevan, predictably, has remained unassessed within these conditions since he was transferred to the Woodhill CSC in March 2010. Most of the prisoners who share this “level of supervision” with Kevan suffer with severe mental illness, confirmed by the operational manager of the Woodhill CSC, Claire Hodson, and the noise level (screaming, door hammering, wrecking of cells) fills and permeates the self-enclosed unit 24 hours a day. Kevan has endured this hellish place for over two years by focusing on litigation and trying to hold the prison system legally accountable for his treatment and that of all prisoners. Justice Secretary Grayling’s “populist” claim that most if not all prison litigation cases were “frivolous” was a blatant lie and motivated equally by an intention to deny prisoners the right to legally challenge the sort of conditions that exist within the CSCs (“I am proposing to take legal aid away from prisoners who don’t like the prison they are in, or don’t like the cell they are in, or don’t like a part of the regime”) as it is about the financial benefits to cutting the legal aid bill during a period of “austerity”.
Denied the weapon of legal challenge to the serious abuse of human rights in the CSC system, Kevan is now completely at the mercy of the system and his guards determination to extract full revenge for his acquittal at Newcastle Crown Court. It is unlikely that he will ever return to “normal location” in prison.
In his response to the governments removal of legal aid for the most powerless, the president of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, warned that people who felt they were being denied justice could end up “taking the law into their own hands”.
Prisoners finally winning the right to be properly legally advised and represented at prisoner disciplinary hearings in 1982 initiated prison litigation cases in U.K. Courts and more or less concluded a period of rather more direct action by prisoners in the form of riots during the late 1960s, the 1970s and the early 1980s. Graylings desire to turn the clock back to a time when prisoners possessed no rights that the prison system was bound to recognise or respect might well prove correct the aphorism “be careful of what you wish for”.
John Bowden, 6729