Saturday, 21 March 2009

Prisoners let down by the system

Prisoners let down by the system

Published Date: 29 August 2004

YOUR article ‘Pants protest against Scots prisons’ (News, August 22), concerning the Association of Scottish Prisoners’ efforts to secure the basic necessities for hygiene contained some inaccuracies which, I feel, distorted the issue.
I have had to raise legal actions in the past just to force the Scottish Prison Service to obey the law, but I do feel that we should expect the SPS - as part of the justice system - to obey the law as a matter of course and not only when obliged to do so by the courts.

While I accept that some prisoners may have raised issues in the courts which could be regarded as frivolous, I do not think it unreasonable that I should expect clean underwear and socks more frequently than once a month. Nor is this an isolated case - I have had to take the same issue to the press on two previous occasions in order to secure the most basic hygiene.

I also feel that the picture painted of prisoners and lawyers jumping on the gravy train was disingenuous. I was first to raise the issue of slopping out, almost five years ago - I did this through the internal complaints procedure, with no thought of legal action.

Despite a recommendation from the Prisons Complaints Commissioner, and the acceptance by the chief executive that slopping out was "degrading and unacceptable", nothing has been done in the intervening years. Nor is the problem beyond solution - the SPS have a contingency plan prepared should they lose the appeal in the Napier case; to place two extra officers on night shift and allow prisoners access to toilets - ending slopping out at a stroke. This could be done tomorrow.

I did make it very clear to your journalist that I had not sought legal aid on the laundry issue, nor was it likely to be granted. I have raised actions in the courts in the past, but always for a token £50 damages - the object being to secure lawful conditions, not to milk the public purse.

Annabel Goldie makes the telling point - the internal complaints system does not work! We are obliged to raise issues in the courts which should have been resolved internally. The Complaints Commission takes over a year to respond to complaints, thereby making the commission irrelevant to prisoners serving less than two years. If matters were dealt with promptly and effectively internally there would be no need to resort to legal action; but to suggest that we are deliberately raising matters to secure damages is grossly inaccurate - we are doing so because the system has failed us!

And we are well aware when we attempt to do so that it is extremely unlikely that legal aid will be granted. My previous actions have been funded by myself and were born of disgust at the SPS being able - and willing - simply to ignore the law.

Far from jumping on the gravy train, such actions, and the running of the Association of Scottish Prisoners, have occasioned considerable personal expense - so in the public/personal purse issue I am working at a loss. Give us a complaints system that works, and a prison service that obeys the law as a matter of course, and we would not have to go to the courts.

John Higgins, secretary, Association of Scottish Prisoners

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