HMP Coldingley Workshop
Are we all equally protected by the law?
Do we all feel equally protected by, and accountable to, the law? And if not, what role can non-lawyers play in helping to make, shape and implement the law? These were some of the questions asked at APP’s workshop this week, held at HMP Coldingley in Surrey.
Our Secondees - justice officials from Kenya and Cameroon - gathered with prisoners, prison staff, magistrates, APP staff and volunteers to share their views and experience. As we gathered in smaller groups of 5 or 6, every voice was heard, every perspective noted.
We discussed the challenges for police officers, as well as for the communities where discrimination is felt; the barrier that legal language creates for the accused and the lack of diversity amongst the judiciary, and the need for people to be better informed of their rights as well as the ways non-lawyers can engage with issues of injustice.
Punishment or Rehabilitation?
One of the Secondees, Daniel - a Magistrate from Cameroon, shared how deeply impacted he had been by his visit to the UK so far. He described his professional world as one where the role of a prison sentence is punishment alone. Through his visit to the UK, he believes he now has a better understanding of the place of rehabilitation within the justice system and wants to introduce new practices at home.
A prisoner shared his appreciation for gatherings like this where justice officials engage with prisoners, seeing them as individuals, with families of their own. He movingly challenged us to ask, if a prisoner looked more like a judge or magistrate, would they be more likely to show them the kind of mercy that they would show someone who could be their own child?
Considering a Different Way of Life
HMP Coldingley is focused on the resettlement of prisoners. It holds prisoners of all sentence lengths including those serving a life sentence. One of the prisoners taking part in the workshop had been in prison for 23 years and was anticipating his parole. He has a family to support him on his release but it was clearly a daunting prospect to consider a new way of life after so many years.
Everyone spoke of the benefit of participating in events like this. One young prisoner shared the difference just being involved meant and of having his voice heard. Other members of the group made it clear how much they appreciated and benefitted from those voices - the experience of conviction, court, and imprisonment - from a perspective they would never otherwise have seen.
The UK’s Prison System
The total UK prison population was 83,618 (0.13% of the population), 79,749 men and 3,869 women in 2018.
Latest figures show that two-thirds (81 out of 120) of prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded
People from BAME (black, asian and minority ethnic) backgrounds constitute only 14% of the general population in England and Wales, but make up 25% of its prison population.
For the most up-to-date figures on HM Prisons, visit the Prison Reform Trust
The headlines of 2018 repeatedly stated that the prisons of England & Wales were “in crisis” - with high levels of violence, drugs and self-harming. Whatever the cause, there has been “an increase in average sentence lengths, more offenders being jailed for life or indeterminate terms and tougher release conditions, so that prisoners are more likely to be sent back to custody for breaches.” In the US and Canada, prisoners organised strikes - a series of work stoppages and hunger strikes - to demonstrate their concern at the state of their justice system.
A Solution to the Justice Crisis
The same challenges that have been evident in developing countries for many years, are also being felt in the West. But perhaps the experience and innovation of the developing world is what it will take to transform the system.
In prisons across East Africa, we see prisoners and prison staff working together to gain access to legal knowledge and to share it, in order to provide access to justice for many more. Where overcrowded prisons hold those still awaiting trial, better prepared prisoners lead to quicker and more efficient handling of cases - enabling the courts to apply more appropriate sentencing or release, reducing the number of prisoners held. Where prisoners serve out their sentences gaining legal training, they leave ready to re-engage with their families and communities - some with a degree-level education, and the confidence to change the system. People like Susan Kigula - a death row prisoner turned death penalty abolitionist.
We should not underestimate the potential of these men and women, within the justice system to start solving the problems they face, once they have the opportunity to do so. And in doing so, they may already have the solutions to the global justice crisis, as they become changemakers who can make, shape and implement the law.
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