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article imageOp-Ed: Prisoners rights and wrongs

By Alexander Baron     Dec 2, 2012 in Crime
Prisoners are at the bottom of the pecking order in Britain and everywhere else, but what rights should they have, or not, and how do we stop them going back once they have been released?
One of the most paradoxically unfair anomalies of the British legal system is Legal Aid or the lack of it. Anyone, even a billionaire, is entitled to be represented at a police station for free if arrested. That may seem strange but it is not unfair, not least because bilionaires are seldom arrested, and most rich people prefer to pay for their own solicitors when they find themselves on the business end of our wonderful boys in blue.
What though about the two crooks who were facing a £32 million fraud rap? They too received Legal Aid. Currently, the courts are owed over a billion pounds from assets ordered to be seized. Ordered but not seized.
At the same time, lawyers in Scotland are staging a protest over changes (read cuts) to the Legal Aid system. They have been refusing to attend police stations, and when you see what the new proposals entail you will understand why they are angry. They are now expected both to charge clients and to collect this money from them. Collecting payment from an accused (or convicted) burglar is a different proposition from collecting one from a client in a divorce case or property dispute.
At the time cuts are being made in the funding of criminal defence cases, the government is being told by our masters in Europe that it must give prisoners the vote. Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Cameron and other members of the Government are not happy with this. With the exception of remand prisoners who have yet to plead, or who have pleaded not guilty, there is absolutely no case for giving prisoners the vote. To begin with, this is a gimmick, men and the fewer women behind bars have more important things to concern themselves with than voting, usually of a more personal nature. Those serving short sentences need to prepare themselves for their release, which might include finding somewhere to live. Those like mass killer Jeremy Bamber have no right to participate in society anyway.
Returning to Cameron, we may have all misjudged this bloke, because although he is most definitely posh, unlike Clive Stafford Smith he is not an aimless posh boy. Listen to him speaking last October. His heart is certainly in the right place, but although he must realise the magnitude of the problem he intends to tackle, does he have a clue how to proceed?
The idea of some prisoners being met at the gate on their discharge by mentors who will assist them with "housing, getting a job and tackling drug and alcohol problems" sounds admirable, and indeed it is, but it needs to be thought out.
Firstly, prisoners serving very long sentences have this sort of help anyway. Those lifers who are deemed suitable for release will generally spend a year or two finishing off their sentences at an open prison with day release, weekends at home (those who have homes), and for those who don't, eventual discharge to a half-way house or some sort of specialised housing scheme.
It is the short term and medium term prisoners who are likely to need the most help, especially those who have no home to go to, and let's be realistic about this, especially in the current economic climate, how will these mentors, however talented or well-meaning, find jobs for old lags who have spent more years in prison than out? Here we are talking about men who may have not only alcohol or drug problems, but all manner of others, including personal hygiene, semi-literacy, health issues, and so on.
The Government wants to pay these mentors by results, which could end up leaving them out of pocket, or more likely chasing more lucrative contracts in the private sector. To prevent old lags returning to jail yet again and to prevent young discharged prisoners following in their footsteps, truly radical alternatives are needed. It is not facetious to suggest that those who are too old to change their ways and who are unemployable under the current financial system should be sent into some form of internal exile. For the very young, rehabilitation is not only desirable but essential, and in many cases is and will be possible, but this requires all those concerned to think outside the box. Human nature may not change, but times and technology do, and the latter especially (not to mention so-called austerity) will continued to make those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder even more unemployable and ever more isolated from mainstream society. And we have already seen where that leads in the riots of August 2011.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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