Friday, September 27, 2013
The blogpost on rape of women in detention has had interesting effects, mostly subterranean – as is the way with anything prison related. Information flows, in odd channels, carving its way through the cracks in the walls. The Ministry of Justice were extremely annoyed. Not at any revelation that women prisoners in their care were being raped, but by the accusation that they were indifferent to it. Good.
The blogpost was not only very personal; it was part of a deeper strategy for change. The shape of this is not for discussion; giving away that information, The Plan, would be to give the Ministry the avenues to scupper it. I am but one voice in a chorus on this issue, and powerful allies play their part in their own corners of the criminal justice landscape.
Now I call for information. As much information as possible relating to the sexual abuse of prisoners across the system. Prison staff are notoriously reticent and cliquish, but not a homogenous group. Prisons contain Discipline staff – screws – managers, teachers, chaplains, workshop staff, psychologists, probation officers, NHS medics....a range of individuals and professional groups who do not all buy into the mentality of denial or dehumanisation.
There are numerous ways in which I can be reached anonymously. Phone, blog, gmail, twitter...I am here. And we have the services of three senior QC's to defend the interests of any whistleblower, all willing and able to wield the law against the Prison Service in defence of anyone who shares their knowledge of these awful crimes. And the protection exists....
The law on whistleblowing is governed by the Employment Rights Act (ERA) 1996, as amended by the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) 1998. The preamble of the PIDA describes it as “An Act to protect individuals who make certain disclosures of information in the public interest; to allow such individuals to bring action in respect of victimisation; and for connected purposes.”
The law is therefore designed to protect ‘workers’ (including employees) that disclose information about malpractice at their workplace, or former workplace, providing that certain conditions are met.
The PIDA establishes two tiers of protection for whistleblowers on the grounds that they have made a “protected disclosure”:
i. Not to be dismissed
ii. Not to suffer any detriment
Since the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act (ERRA) 2013 came into force on June 25 2013, the existing legislation extends to protect whistleblowers against detriment also caused by co-workers as a result of a protected disclosure
When will a whistle blower be protected by the legislation?
For the whistleblowing protection to apply, the information provided must constitute a “protected disclosure”. In order to be protected, the information disclosed must firstly concern some wrongdoing (a Qualified Disclosure) and secondly, be disclosed by the worker in accordance with the statutory provisions.
1) Qualified Disclosure
A disclosure of information will be a qualifying disclosure if, in the reasonable belief of the person making the disclosure, it shows any of the following has occurred or is likely to occur:
- A criminal offence
- Breach of a legal obligation
- A miscarriage of justice
- Danger to the health or safety of an individual
- Damage to the environment
- The deliberate concealment of information of any of the above
Due to the ERRA, for disclosures after 25 June 2013, the whistleblower must also have a reasonable belief that the information disclosed is in the public interest
2) Prescribed methods of disclosure
In order to be protected, a qualifying disclosure must be made via one of the following prescribed methods:
- To the employer: PIDA encourages internal disclosure (disclosure to the employer) as the primary means of disclosure
- To a responsible third party: If a worker reasonably believes that the information relates to a third party’s conduct or to a matter for which they are responsible
- To a legal advisor: If made in the course of obtaining legal advice
- To a Minister of the Crown: If employed by a person or body appointed under statute, the worker can report matters to the relevant minister
- To a prescribed person: Parliament has provided a list of “prescribed persons” – including HMRC, the Audit Commission and the Office of Fair Trading – to whom workers can make disclosures, provided that the worker reasonably believes that:
i. The information, and any allegation it contains, is substantially true
ii. They are making the disclosure to the correct prescribed person
- Wider disclosure: Disclosure to anyone else (i.e. the media) is only protected if the worker believes the information is substantially true, does not act for personal gain and acts reasonably in the circumstances. Unless the matter is "exceptionally serious", they must have already disclosed it to the employer or a prescribed person, or believe that, if they do, evidence would be destroyed or that they would suffer reprisals. Disclosure to that person must also be reasonable.
The law protects those who will share their knowledge with us. The lawyers are ready to protect, you.
All that is now needed is that those who work in prisons and other places of detention take a moment of stillness, and look to their hearts.
Talk to us. Drag the wrongs from the dungeons of darkness of secrecy into the light, so that we can see, judge – and stop these monstrous abuses.
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
I had seen the story. It peeked through the gaps in my life, between furious bouts of work, depression, stress and general mayhem. The rape and abuse of women detainees at Yarls Wood, run by the security company Serco. And yet, like so many of us, the story slid away from me, displaced by my own selfish concerns, other stories.
And then I had a phonecall. The conversation was long, tinged with anger, bitterness and laden with sadness. Ghosts from the past stared us both in the face and mocked inaction, silence. But be assured – this post is fuelled not by my inadequacies and helplessness, but rather charged by my deep burning anger at what I know now. About a woman who, several years ago, was repeatedly raped by a prison governor whilst she was in his charge. A woman whose sentence was three times longer than her male co-defendents. A woman who, despite the degradations inflicted upon her by the prison service and the spineless watchdog bodies, remains in the care of those who abandoned her to her horrible fate.
I do not know this woman. I know her friend. My connection with her is the intangible one that connects all who have had to fight their fear and powerlessness in prison. I know her through what I myself suffered, and what I saw inflicted upon others. There is a place in life for a due measure of punishment, do not err into thinking that is my complaint. It is not. My anger is fuelled by the abuses I saw, fought, and know still continue. My unnamed incarceree and her compatriots deserve – at the very least – that their abuse makes us angry.
Staff at Yarl's Wood are finally being investigated. Some of the complaints go back years. The mainstream media could not discuss the story, evidence from behind bars being incredibly difficult to substantiate. The high walls may be permeable to contraband, but are quite effective at blocking the flow of information and to inculcate a sense of isolation and helplessness. Finally, The Guardian and Observer managed to break the story.....or the parts its lawyers felt comfortable with. I will always be grateful to any journalist who covers a prison story, knowing the indifference that may flow from readers. Anyone who is not moved to a cold fury or sickened disgust by the knowledge that those we charge the State – and its private sector minions – to care for has, in reality, been abusing and degrading those women.
Yarl's Wood is today’s story for us. It is also tomorrows reality for the women held there. It is also an experience being repeated below the radar at Eastwood Park prison, with women being sexually abused and racially degraded by a male Governor. Action has yet to be taken.
You will not know my anger. It is not yours, although I hope there is a common humanity that connects us in our feelings for these abuses. But my anger comes from sharing their powerlessness. Ghosts from the past for me....and yet potent spirits that stir me deeply.
When we put a person in prison we strip them of all they have. Dignity, autonomy, individuality, status, home, family...all that gives meaning to our lives is taken away on behalf of the public. That's you and I. We render them helpless. The least we can demand, insist upon without hesitation, is that these people are then cared for. Not to be beaten or raped by the guards we pay to do our sordid bidding.
Why does this happen? There must be decent guards, decent civilian staff working in these prisons, NHS staff, layers of management, watchdog bodies, and ultimately the Ministry of Justice. It happens because people are afraid to speak. Maybe selfishly, maybe pragmatically, but the end result is the same. In cells across the women's prison estate male guards are raping female prisoners. The silence may be indifference, it may be callousness, but it allows the abuse to continue.
And that goes all the way to the heart of the Ministry of Justice, the Orwellian monolith that scrabbles to hold this whole mess together. In this case, the indifference can be tracked directly back to the ruthless heart of Dr Debra Baldwin. She is in charge of "Transforming Rehabilitation" for Women Offenders. And has an office, salary band staff to add weight to her position. Dr Baldwin also has previous for her contempt for both the taxpayer. At a meeting with charities whose goal was to help women prisoners, whose goal was to reduce the female prison population – overwhelmingly a non violent collection of criminality – the good Doctor began the meeting by insisting she intended to keep locking these women up. And then chuckled.
Just a few days ago one of the warrior-women I am proud to know, who now circles the criminal justice arena like a well dressed piranha, bared her teeth at Dr Baldwin during a meeting. My friend put the charges of rape at Yarls Wood squarely to Baldwin. And the woman in charge of these prisoners and their rehabilitation looked my friend squarely in the eye and said, "it's not my problem".
It is her problem. Its the problem of everyone who knows about it and does nothing. It is certainly "the problem" for those in charge of this carceral monstrosity that allows prison guards to coerce women – disempowered at our demand, remember – into sexual submission.
I am angry. I am intensely sad. But what I refuse to feel is helpless. And if the least I can do is voice this clarion call for outrage, I have done something. To do nothing in the face of this abuse is to turn your back on humanity – and the consequences of our penal obsession.
We put these women in this situation. It is our responsibility to safeguard them. But before us and our responsibility comes that of those we pay to do our dirty work in prisons – led by the indifferent Dr Debra Baldwin.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Every few months whilst I was blogging from the other side of the wall I would throw up the opportunity for readers to ask me questions. Usually these were prison related, but some were profoundly personal or contained an insightfulness that would make me draw breath.
It occurs that in the 13 months since my release, I haven't explicitly given readers that invitation to ask me about...anything. Here's your chance.