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This morning I bemoaned America’s use of the criminal justice system to manage and punish unfairly the poorest people in America – a population Michelle Alexander describes as those from “ghetto neighbourhoods” and mostly African American.

Well, it seems Britain’s criminal justice is even more punitive to Black people – within its criminal justice system and particularly in its prisons.

From yesterdays Guardian:

“The proportion of black people in prison in England and Wales is higher than in the United States, a landmark report released today by the Equality and Human Rights Commission reveals.

The commission’s first triennial report into the subject, How Fair is Britain, shows that the proportion of people of African-Caribbean and African descent incarcerated here is almost seven times greater to their share of the population. In the United States, the proportion of black prisoners to population is about four times greater.”


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Photograph: Benjamin Sklar for the Guardian

It’s just a brief account of his time in solitary and his time since the overturning of his conviction. 29 years in 24/7 lock-down is a long time for anyone, is it worse for someones who’s innocent?

“I didn’t realise how permanently the experience of solitary would mark me. Even now my sight is impaired. I find it very difficult to judge long distances – a result of living in such a small space.”

PART THIRTEENTH INSTALLMENT IN A SERIES OF POSTS DISCUSSING JOURNALISTS ACTIONS AND RESPONSES TO THE KILLING OF FABIENNE CHERISMA IN PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI ON THE 19TH JANUARY 2010.

The world only knew of Fabienne Cherisma’s life in the aftermath of her death.

15-year-old Fabienne Cherisma lies dead after being shot in the head in Port-au-Prince. Photograph: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Carlos Garcia Rawlins’ photograph was used for Rory Carroll’s Guardian article, He had not picked her up since she was a toddler. Last week he carried her home (Tuesday 26th January). The article is succinct and dignified; Rory Carroll details Fabienne’s simple life and bold aspirations. For me, it remains the best news piece I have read about Fabienne and her family.

Thus, I went to the source and asked Rory to clear up some basic facts about Fabienne’s story.

PP: When did you meet with the Cherisma family?

RC: I met them on Friday 22nd January. I interviewed the parents and sister, Amanda, at their market-stall, and accompanied them to their home where we finished the interview.

PP: Who exactly, makes up Fabienne’s immediate family? I have seen many different spellings – can you verify their names?

RC: Father Osam, mother Amante Kerly, sister Amanda, brothers Ruben, Jeff, Jimmy and Biterly (not sure about spelling of latter, nor if brother or sister). (In all the photographs of the Cherismas the only brother known to us is Jeff (below). Many news outlets – including this blog – have had Amanda incorrectly referred to as Samantha)

PP: When was Fabienne buried in Zorange? What date?

RC: Wednesday 20th, the day after she was killed. (This answer is interesting as it means that Nick Kozak and the Cherismas chanced upon one another on the same day she was buried – I presume before the Cherismas left for Zorange.)

Photo: Nick Kozak, January 20, 2010

PP: What did the Cherismas intend to do.

RC: [They planned to] continue as before, working at the stall, with no plans to sue or prosecute.

PP: You said at the end of your report, “The one photo of her, in which she smiles, is lost. So is her birth certificate. The family thinks the hospital which recorded her birth was destroyed. There is no police investigation and the death is not registered. Officially, it is as if the teenager never was.” Do you think this will always be the case?

RC: Maybe not. Hopefully not – given the media attention paid to the story.

– – –

Time and time again through my investigation I have found that few, if any, options exist for the Cherismas to launch an inquiry and insist upon an accountability for Fabienne’s death. The idea that they’ll “continue as before” – as if the expectation of public awareness and criminal prosecution is unreasonable – is a travesty.

– – –

ALSO IN THE ‘PHOTOGRAPHING FABIENNE’ SERIES

Part One: Fabienne Cherisma (Initial inquiries, Jan Grarup, Olivier Laban Mattei)
Part Two: More on Fabienne Cherisma (Carlos Garcia Rawlins)
Part Three: Furthermore on Fabienne Cherisma (Michael Mullady)
Part Four: Yet more on Fabienne Cherisma (Linsmier, Nathan Weber)
Part Five: Interview with Edward Linsmier
Part Six: Interview with Jan Grarup
Part Seven: Interview with Paul Hansen
Part Eight: Interview with Michael Winiarski
Part Nine: Interview with Nathan Weber
Part Ten: Interview with James Oatway
Part Eleven: Interview with Nick Kozak
Part Twelve: Two Months On (Winiarski/Hansen)

Part Fourteen: Interview with Alon Skuy
Part Fifteen: Conclusions

That the Ministry of Justice and Prison Service have embarked on a course of activity in an effort to disrupt my blog only reinforces my view that I was right to intrude on the public. That the MoJ and the HMPS have the brass neck to portray themselves as guardians of the law while traducing it reveals the very underbelly of criminal justice morality that my blog wishes to illustrate.

Ben Gunn, Guardian. Monday September 14th, 2009

There is an interesting debate growing in the UK. Should prisoners be allowed to blog?

bbcprisonblogging

Ben Gunn, who claims to be the only serving UK prisoner who blogs, had a letter to his wife intercepted by the prison governor and told “the content is interesting enough to be published on the internet” and on this ground it was stopped from leaving the prison.

Gunn set up the blog at the end of August. He writes the content and his editor posts it to the web.

Gunn has caused a stir with forthright opinions on politicised victims groups, spineless politicians and poor prison management. These, he argues, are not fallacious rants, but genuine problems of an overly-punitive system and disengaged society.

Furthermore, Gunn argues that despite his original sentence of 10 years, he remains in prison after 30 because he has continuously challenged the prison authorities. At present Gunn is engaged in research towards a PhD, focused upon the role of Human Needs Theory in prison conflicts.

My question “How do we feel about Prison Bloggers?” is largely rhetorical. How we feel about them makes no impingement on their lawful right to write and publish from prison. Let’s be absolutely clear here. Gunn is breaking NO LAW.

The only law that may pertain is that Gunn may receive no compensation for his writing while a ward of the prison service. But this was never the issue at stake. Gunn’s free speech was deliberately quashed by the administration of a system that stood to face criticism through his words.

The official position as summarised by another excellent prison rights blogger John Hirst (The Jailhouse Lawyer):

The Ministry of Justice writes: “There is no specific Prison Service policy on prisoners using or posting blogs, as they do not have direct unregulated access to computers or the internet”. However, the reply goes on to to say that it can be implied from Prison Service order 4411, that a prisoner cannot ask someone else to communicate what the prisoner is not in a position to do himself and which violates the rules. The MoJ has clearly failed to take into account the human right to freedom of expression guaranteed under article 10 of the European convention, and prisoners’ rights to contact the media “on matters of legitimate public interest“.

I agree with many of Gunn’s positions, I don’t appreciate his tone sometimes, but I think he must absolutely exist within the dialogue about British criminal justice. His thoughts as a serving prisoner are of central value to debate and an informed public.

The echoes ring true and far. Gunn’s concerns over misinformation, scare-mongering and codes of silence are as acute (if not moreso) in the US prison industry.

I’ll leave you with Gunn’s view on prevailing distortions to debate and his admirable defiance:

In reducing discussions to trite slogans and vote-grubbing soundbites, we debase ourselves as a collective and as people. I realise that I pose a challenge, but regardless of any efforts expended by the government I am not going away.

_____________________________________________________________

As well as the Guardian sources linked in this article, the BBC picked up on this story and includes a brief but informative audio discussion of the issue.

_____________________________________________________________

Editor’s note: It seems strange that in the UK this quasi-controversial issue has taken a long time to rear its head – after all, Michael Santos has been blogging from US federal prisons at his own Prison Journal and as a guest at Change.org since January 2009.

His family claim he was 12 when he was taken into US custody. The pentagon claim he was 17. Whichever the case, the treatment remained the same.

Video from the Guardian.

GuantanmoYoungDetaineeVideo

Two stories from the British press this week mimicking to two pressing issues of the American justice system – care provision for mentally ill prison populations & exoneration after wrongful conviction.

First off. As the Beeb reports, The Lord Bradley Report has recommended moving mentally ill inmates out of prisons and into alternative care environments. That’s a significant victory for prison mental health reformers, and for the UK public.

The impressive thing Bradley’s report is that he ties the shortcomings of the prison system to provide appropriate mental-health care to wider problematic practices of policing; highlighting in particular the relatively new anti-social behaviour (ASBO) as inflexible and routinely applied. From the BBC,

It is expected to highlight how ASBO and penalty notices can accelerate the treatment of mentally ill people as criminals. Some estimates suggest 70% of inmates have two or more mental disorders

and

In February, Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures revealed that a record 3,906 offenders with mental disorders were being held in secure hospitals in England and Wales at the end of 2007.

'I miss the prison crowds' ... Sean Hodgson. Photograph: David Levene/Guardian

'I miss the prison crowds' ... Sean Hodgson. Photograph: David Levene/Guardian

Secondly, The Guardian ran Sean Hodgson’s story about time served on a 27 year wrongful conviction. It also covered the first three days following release and the circumstances of Hodgson and reporter, Aina Edemariam, meeting. Edemariam picked Hodgson up off the street after he’d been clipped by the wing mirror of a passing taxi.

Sean Hodgson has been dealt a shitty hand. He suffers from a long list of serious health problems, his money has run out so he survives on coffee. He is lonely. On a ‘couple of times he has felt so depressed he has called a crisis line. But it was busy, he says. “So I just went to bed.”‘ He has also been stalked by a tabloid photographer.

In the US, The Innocence Project has led the way using DNA evidence to overturn wrongful convictions. I think Britain lawyers’ eyes were opened by the Innocence Project’s legal endeavours. The UK has been slower in it’s use of DNA testing for old cases. Sean Hodgson has served the second longest term for a wrongful conviction in the history of British law. And after doing that time? Well it was an abrupt transition:

Lifers who admit guilt go through a few years of preparation for their release: they are given parole, are able to work outside the prison, to put housing and income in place; they can retreat to the prison whenever the outside world gets too overwhelming. Those who have never admitted their guilt very rarely get parole, and thus receive none of this. So Hodgson was taken immediately to the housing and benefits offices – where it transpired that someone had stolen his identity and he no longer had a national insurance (social security) number, meaning that officially he did not exist. His MP had to intervene to sort that out.

With his brother he had his first pint and cigarette as a free man. Although they had spoken twice a week throughout his incarceration they hadn’t actually seen each other for over 10 years, because, he says, his brother couldn’t afford to travel to the prison. After their drink, his brother went back to his hotel, and the next morning, home, to work a night shift. And then Hodgson was on his own.

And then in some final insult, Hodgson’s compensation from the government, which will take at least a year and for which he must apply!, will pan out like this:

Then, when compensation is finally paid out, the government, unbelievably, docks room and board, or “saved living expenses” calculated on the basis of what a frugal person might have spent on their own upkeep if they were free. “As if you voluntarily popped into the local prison,” says Young, contemptuously. “Yes, it would have cost them something to live – but you’ve taken their liberty. If you can afford £50bn to bail out a bank you can afford to compensate someone for 27 years in prison.” McManus estimates that Hodgson will pay a minimum of £100,000 for the privilege. The appeal was paid for by legal aid, but it does not cover the process of applying for compensation. And so Hodgson will have to pay legal fees too.

______________________________________________________

I know it’s quote heavy. I tried to reduce the articles down to their essentials.

David Levene’s photographic work for the Guardian

Permanent for Sean Hodgson article, ‘Freedom? It’s lonely’

Continued Guardian coverage of Sean Hodgson

The Strangeways riots in 1990 led to breakthroughs in the prison system. Photograph: Don McPhee for the Guardian

The Strangeways riots in 1990 led to breakthroughs in the prison system. Photograph: Don McPhee for the Guardian

On April 1st 1990, began Britain’s largest prison riot in history. Strangeways may not mean a lot outside of the UK, but within, Strangeways, Manchester is synonymous with the romanticised image of the Northern criminal. The photographs of prisoners on the roof are iconic. Britons watched with shock.

Photo: Ged Murray

Photo: Ged Murray for the Observer

Prison conditions had rarely been in public debate. Our level of shock was only equivalent to our level of apathy, prior. The general public were in awe of the unprecedented institutional collapse.

Prisoners occupied the roof for 25 days in front of round-the-clock media coverage. The protest ended when the final five prisoners surrendered themselves peacefully on 25th April.

The estimated damage was pegged between £50 and 100 million. The true cost for the HM Prison Service was lord chief justice, Lord Woolf’s subsequent damning report, which cited inmate frustration and poor prison conditions as a main reasons for the riot.

Credit: Unknown

Photo: Ged Murray for the Observer

According to the Guardian – which includes a transcript of the prevailing exchange between proctor and prisoners – the stirrings of unrest began in the chapel following the 10am service. Prison officers evacuated the chapel and then (arguably) too hastily other areas of the prison. Inmates using keys taken from chapel guards released other inmates. Soon the overcrowded and understaffed facility was no longer in the control of government authority.

Strangeways roof protest photographs are iconic because their subject was so unexpected. Britain had harboured class and political confrontation much in the past. But in the miners strikes and clashes with police, football hooliganism, the general strike violence could be in some way predicted. The circumstances for those prior tensions had been played out through media narrative. UK Prisons were neglected; they were in desperate conditions and we – the public – were oblivious.

Don McPhee

Photographs of the Strangeways riot are hard to come by but I have gleaned a few from the web. In doing so I came across the work of the late Don McPhee.

I strongly urge you to watch this slideshow of his work.

McPhee had a 2005 exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery and is a fondly remembered northern talent. He was a crucial part of the alternative editorial voice of the Guardian at that time. That distinctly Northern paper is now internationally distributed & respected.

Miners sunbathing at Orgreave coking plant. Photograph: Don McPhee

Miners sunbathing at Orgreave coking plant. Photograph: Don McPhee

_______________________________________________________

Here is the inevitable percolating legacy of Strangeways in public dialogue.

Here, Eric Allison makes a succinct argument for British prison reform.

And here is the UK Parliament debate in 2001, ten years after the January, 1991 publication of Woolf’s report reviewing the response to the report recommendations.

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