Prisoners, who are particularly vulnerable to neglect and abuse, still have rights, says Nick Hardwick.
If prisoners aren’t recognised as having human rights then none of us can claim to have them, according to the former Chief Inspector of Prisons.
Nick Hardwick believes a slippery slope is created if we choose not to confront some of the uncomfortable questions around how we should “treat people who have done things that we abhor”.
Speaking at a lecture in London last week, the professor said: “If you say the rights of prisoners don’t matter, we can wipe those off and actually we’ll make our stand further up the line when the heat gets a bit closer to me, then you’ve lost the battle already.
“If you’re going to defend the ordinary, everyday rights that all of us depend on as we go about our lives and live in peace and security, then actually you can’t risk sacrificing the principles on which those rights are based, even for people whose behaviour you disapprove of. Once you start saying that those rights are conditional for them, they are conditional for you too.”
The academic said he was not arguing for prisoners’ rights to be recognised “on the basis of ‘what they’ve done is not so bad’” – but despite this.
“I recognise the harm and distress the offences prisoners have been convicted of have caused and there’s nothing in human rights laws or standards that says prisoners can’t be punished and the state has obligations to keep its citizens safe,” he said. “Nonetheless, none of that creates a need or a justification for the denial of prisoners’ human rights.”
“I think part of the problem of why the arguments of prison reformers and people who are concerned with human rights don’t have more traction, is because, sometimes, they avoid the difficult issues: how should we treat people who have done things that we abhor?” Hardwick added.
“If we simply see prisoners as ‘they have these rights because we’re sympathetic to them’ that doesn’t work. Actually, they’ve done something I personally find outrageous, but I still think they have rights and that’s the difficult argument that they need to advance.”
The professor of criminal justice at Royal Holloway, University of London, said that although the UK ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) in 2003, the “way prisons operate now is capable of intentional and unintentional cruelties towards prisoners”.
Speaking of his experience as Chief Inspector in England and Wales, he said there is an assumption that “prisoners have largely forfeited their rights to self-determination and human rights and should demonstrate remorse by passively accepting the processes that are done to them for their own good”.
Even though it is difficult for society to acknowledge the fact, prisoners are particularly vulnerable to abuse and neglect, Hardwick said.
“They’re locked up out of sight, preventing them from moving away from harm and it’s difficult for others to identify that they’re being ill-treated and assist them. There is a very large difference in the powers of the jailor and the powers of the prisoner. If a prisoner does complain, who will believe them? Mistreatment can become normalised.”
Recalling an inspection of Feltham Young Offenders Institution, he said batons used to hit or threaten the young people had been drawn by staff 300 times in six months – compared to six times in the same period at a high-security adult prison. He said he was told: “this is the way we do things around here”.
“Some of that would be that you’ve got an irritating boy who won’t go into their cell and it’s your break time and you could stand there and argue with him for half an hour or you could do something nasty to his thumbs and he’ll go in straight away,” Hardwick added.
One boy said to him: “I never tell staff they’re hurting me because I don’t want them to know what hurts me.”
Hardwick also said the Government’s slashing of experienced prison staff under its austerity regime has led to organised crime filling the vacuum with “their own rules and structures”.
“If you have an absence of staff authority in prison simply because they’re not there, then you will get other forms of authority established by prisoners themselves, by gangs, by organised crime and they have to have rules to operate so if you owe someone a debt because they gave you a mobile phone they’re going to do you and so levels of violence rise.”
UK prisons will be examined by the UN Committee Against Torture, as part of its review of the country, in April 2019.