Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Visit to Bridgetown Prison, Barbados, 1837

As part of my research I have been looking at the development of prisons in the British empire as well as in England.  I came across this account by John Scoble of a visit to Bridgetown Prison, Barbados in 1837.

From the council chamber we proceeded into the jail yard, where were collected a large number of negros employed in breaking stones. The male negros are required to break thirty baskets a day – the women twenty five baskets a day. The stones are very hard and the hammers very soft; the consequence is, that it is a most laborious operation. In failure of their appointed tasks, they are flogged both male and female! This I learned on the spot. Among the women thus employed was one very far advanced in pregnancy. I was very much pleased to learn that some of the more powerful negros would break a few more baskets than their required amount, and give their surplus to the weaker, to save them a flogging. From this part of the yard we proceeded to the back of the prison to inspect the tread-mill. It was going when we reached it – fifteen male negros of different ages, from boys to men, were on it, and the cat was in constant requisition on their sides, shoulders, and legs, to keep them up to their work; and even when the miserable creatures kept step properly, if they did not tread down they were flogged. On the top of the tread mill were a number of negros who secured the arms of those that were too weak to hold on by the rail. The usual time for them to be on the tread mill is ten minutes. From the mill we proceeded to the jail. The first room we entered was about thirty by thirty five feet, in which one hundred and ten negros are at present obliged to herd together from four in the afternoon until next morning; how they can live in such an atmosphere as must be created by so large a number of persons being congregated together in a tropical climate, I cannot tell. – The next apartment visited was about half the size. There were confined in it thirty five males, committed for various felonies. The jailer informed me that sometimes negros were incarcerated there twelve months previous to trial, and are then discharged without it. Often when it is inconvenient for the prosecutor to appear, or he does not choose to appear, cases are adjourned to the next Sessions, a period of six months. How iniquitous a system is this! We returned back to the tread-mill. The women were then on; such a sight I never saw before; they were dressed in coarse dowlas, descending from the hips like trowsers, below the knees, and upwards to the bosom, leaving the neck exposed, fitting close round the body. The arms from below the shoulders bare, the legs bare also. The heads shaved quite close, with a handkerchief tied round them. They were up for ten minutes, and had been up during the morning four times before, and were to be put up twice after we left. No difference whatever was made between them as to the amount of punishment. When we arrived, they had been up about three minutes, and the brutal driver was flogging them with the cat with as much severity as he had previously flogged the men; he cut them wherever he listed, and as often as he pleased. We were dreadfully shocked, but determined to witness the whole proceeding. On the mill there was a mulatto woman, perhaps about thirty, dreadfully exhausted – indeed she could not step any more, although she had been on only a few minutes.

The driver flogged her repeatedly, and she as often made the attempt to tread the mill, but nature was worn out. She was literally suspended by the bend of the elbow of one arm, a negro holding down the wrist at the top of the mill for some minutes; and her poor legs knocking against the revolving steps of the mill until her blood marked them. There she hung groaning. and anon receiving a cut from the driver, to which she appeared almost indifferent. When the ten minutes were up, the negro above released her arm, and she fell on the floor utterly unable to support herself, and at last managed to stagger out of the place. Her sufferings must have been terrible. But she was not the only one who suffered. A black girl, apparently about eighteen, was equally exhausted. When we arrived, she was moaning piteously. Her moans were answered by the cut of the whip. She endeavoured again and again to tread the mill, but was utterly unable. She had lost all power, and hung, in the same helpless way with the mulatto woman, suspended by the left arm, held on by the wrist by a negro above. The bend of the arm passed over the rail, and the wrist was held down tightly, so that she could not alter her position, or get the least ease by moving. It was most affecting to hear her appeals to the driver, ‘Sweet massa, do pity me – do sweet massa, pity me – my arm is broke.’ Her entreaties to be relieved were answered by cuts from the whip, and threats that did she not cease to make a noise, he would have her down and flog her. The fear that he would carry this threat into execution led her to suppress her feelings as well as she could. I then engaged the attention of the driver in a conversation and managed to place him towards me in such a position that he could not see the mill, and by a multitude of questions, occupied about two minutes of the time, until the glass had run down; thus saving the poor creature any more flogging. When let go, she sunk on the ground exhausted, but managed shortly after to crawl away from the scene of her suffering. Dr. Lloyd and I went shortly after to that part of the mill where the women are kept; the whole of them were in a state of profuse perspiration, and scarcely able to speak. We examined the legs of the mulatto woman, and found them shockingly bruised, the skin in one part about the size of a dollar torn away. The poor black girl had lost the skin off the bend of her arm, and was suffering dreadfully from the cramp. In reference to the latter female, I observed the driver cut her across the naked ankles, leaving the mark of his cat visible. I spoke a few kind words, which greatly affected them. Thus then, it appears, that in Barbados women committed to the tread mill are catted ad libitum – the driver's feelings alone being the rule which governs him in the use of his scourge. During the whole time these scenes were transacting, the Barbados Legislature were holding their Sessions within thirty yards of the tread-mill.

Friday, 25 June 2010

The foolishness of minimum sentences

One of claimed purposes of state punishment is deterrence. When the lawbreaker is sentenced a message is sent out to other potential lawbreakers. The sentence must be sufficiently severe to deter other lawbreakers.  This function has been used to justify minimum sentences - a legally specified minimum penalty that applies to all who break a specific law. One area where we have minimum statutory sentences is for gun crime.

However such sentences can result is grave miscarriages of justice.  Last week a 53 year old woman, Gail Cochrane, was sentenced to five years in prison for possession of a firearm. Five years is the minimum penalty for this case.  But look closer and you realise the stupidity of the law.

The gun in question is a 1927 Czech made Browning which her Father had brought back as a souvenir from the Second World War.  When he died she kept the gun. She had no ammunition for the gun and there was no evidence it had ever left her home.  Whilst it was a real gun it was also a family heirloom and without ammunition it was harmless. Yet the law is the law and Ms Cochrane is now serving five years in prison.

She is experience the pains of imprisonment to send out a message to who?  Middle aged women who have sentimentally failed to dispose of their father's souvenirs?  Or is it a case of politicians and the police claiming that this sort of thing shows how tough they are?  Whatever its both stupid and really unjust to Ms Cochrane.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Better safe not sorry?

The precautionary principle seems like good common sense. If in doubt play safe.  If we are not sure of the actual harms something may cause we should take action now rather than wait for firm evidence. In short better safe than sorry. However the reality can be rather different as David Nutt points out in an excellent blog entitled Precaution or perversion: eight harms of the precautionary principle.

Essential Nutt argues that in respect to drugs the precautionary principle leads to increased harm.  In particular he identifies these 8 harms:
  1. Increases personal harms
  2. Distorts markets to greater harm to society
  3. Impossibility to refute
  4. Disproportionate penalties
  5. Entrenchment of a flawed institutionalised moral position on drugs
  6. Encourages other drug use
  7. Blocks new drug discovery
  8. Denies innovation and medical progress
This counter-intuitive argument is an important one and one that I have used to argue that the harms of drug and alcohol policy are actually greater than the direct harms of the specific substances.


Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Help save Troy Davis

I received this e-mail from Amnesty asking for support for Troy Davis on death row in the USA.  Please support.

Dear Friend,

Troy Davis has one last chance to save his own life.

He has faced 3 execution dates, despite the fact that most witnesses have recanted their testimony since he was convicted of murder 19 years ago.

On Wednesday, June 23, a U.S. Supreme Court-ordered evidentiary hearing will be held in Savannah, Georgia.

Stand with Amnesty. Demand justice for Troy Davis.

Troy was sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer in Savannah, a crime he maintains he did not commit. There was no physical evidence against him and the weapon used in the murder was never found.

The case against him consisted entirely of witness testimony. Since his trial, all but two of the nine state's non-police witnesses have recanted or contradicted their testimony, many alleging that police coerced their original statements.

But for years, appellate judges declined to let these witnesses appear in court, citing procedural rules and technicalities. Finally, last August, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new evidentiary hearing for Troy, deciding that he should have one last chance to prove his innocence before the state of Georgia tries again to put him to death.

However, at the hearing Troy must "clearly establish his innocence," which is an incredibly high legal standard.

Wednesday, June 23, Troy's life is on the line.

Join Amnesty. Denounce the death penalty for Troy Davis.

Regardless of the hearing's outcome, no execution should ever take place when there are so many doubts about guilt.

Georgia cannot afford to make such a mistake, and Amnesty International is urging state officials to do everything in their power to prevent injustice from taking place.

Thank you for taking action on behalf of Troy Davis.

In Solidarity,

Laura Moye
Death Penalty Abolition Campaign Director, Amnesty International USA

BP spill management

Monday, 21 June 2010

Prison from the prisoners family's experience.

I came across this posting on the Guardian Theatre Blog  from November 2006 from the Father of a young prisoner.  Well worth a read.

Its difficult to have any sympathy for a child who is arrested and then convicted of robbery with a knife, Lock them up, Tag them, capital punishment, stick them in the army, just a few things I have said as a father to my three boys, three boys who for most of there lives did nothing wrong at all. 
Our oldest son is 23 and is currently awaiting a hip replacement on our crumbling NHS waiting lists, he had the accident nearly 2 years ago and we are still waiting, our youngest son has been mostly ignored, he is not a bad child, far from it, he does nothing wrong at all, but our middle son Craig, is a young offender, he is not one of these children who was in with the wrong crowd, my son was the wrong crowd.
We would sit at home worried about the fact he had to get a bus and a tube to school, we were terrified of them getting mugged, it was with absolute horror that we learnt that our son Craig hadn’t been mugged, but was in fact the mugger.

It was a very quick decline into suspensions, police visits, cautions and eventually, expulsion, its quite ironic that the Government go on and on about how parents will feel there wrath if they don’t get there kids to school, our son didn’t go for over 2 years and no one called, no one came and the one school we did go along to, I was called a white c**t by a pupil, so I decided that if the teacher couldn’t control this child, what chance did they have with mine.

My son has been in 4 jails in 2 months, he has been hospitalised 4 times, twice at the same prison, a prison were they held an internal investigation over my sons injuries and came to the conclusion that he was to blame, both his mum and myself were not invited and I am ashamed to say that even though my son was complaining about the guards, I didn’t listen, I wish I had.

On another visit to see him, we were told that it was going to be closed visit, no one had called to let us know and we were told that either my wife or my son was going to have to wait in the car, after a big argument we were ushered into a small smelly room with 3 inch glass between ourselves and Craig and to our horror our son was brought in with plaster of Paris on both arms, cuts on his face and a face filled with hate.

How could this have happened and we not be told, how can our son be hospitalised and no one called to say what happened, our son then told us that he had started a fire in his cell because the guards were antagonising him outside and he felt it was the only way to get them in, he was overcome with smoke and once again, no one called us.

I put up an almighty fuss and was told to leave the prison, I was told on the way out by a guard that my son ‘got what he deserved’ and that ‘we’ ( the guards) didn’t start the fire’These were trained people who were meant to be looking after my son, not abusing him.

My whole out look on prisons changed, I began to get this horrible feeling that my son may be in danger, I know that sounds like an over protective parent, but I know my son, I know what he’s capable off and he is not scared of anyone and if a grown man is going to be aggressive against my son, then my son will fight back, before he was jailed ( my son hadn’t been in trouble for 18 months prior to the court case) he had been accepted into the Irish guards, he had started college and was on a painting and decorating course, the judge ( who was deliberating over his last case) took none of this into consideration and jailed him and since the jailing, he has been hospitalised 4 times and this included 2 restraints by the guards, he has had his nose broken, this required surgery, and always seems to be in trouble, again I must add that he had not been in trouble outside the prison for 18 months, not once in all that time had he brought any trouble to our home.

I began to worry that there maybe major problems in the jailing of young people and I began digging.

In his 2 months in 4 young offenders units, my son has been restrained twice, resulting in injuries to his head and arms, he has had his nose broken, he was given Prozac by Ashfield YOI, even though the two non private prisons said there was nothing wrong with him, he has been involved in a fire in his cell, he has been moved with us being told and more to the point he received a forced strip search.

I saw my son 20 minutes after he was stripped by force and in my opinion, it was done for no other reason than a punishment, his arms were still red raw from were he had been held down, there were marks on his head from were his head was banged on the floor and he was upset, I was so upset, I had to leave.

2 days later I attended a meeting in the city were Mr Philip Wheatly was giving a speech on his guards and prisons, I told him about my son and he said we were unlucky, I found the mans remarks to be condescending and if this is the attitude of the prison guards boss, then what chance does my son have.

Sean Doyle
Guardian 28 November 2006

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Confessions of Killers

A group of men who shot dead a man over 14 years ago this week spoke about the killing to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Here are some of their comments:
To me it was just an assignment, nothing more than getting an order
(it was like) returning a defective product to the manufacturer.
I had a good feeling that we had successfully completed the task
I wrestled with the morality. I'm not a super-religious or spiritual person. I go to church every Sunday. I did wrestle with 'thou shall not kill.' But I still felt that it was part of my job.
My wife was worried over possible retaliation from people if they learned I was one of the shooters
I was worried about some lawyer working the courts to have us all charged with homicide

Saturday, 19 June 2010

McLibel - McDonald's failed attempt to silence campaigners highlighting their unethical behaviour

Today is the 13th Anniversary of the ending of the Mclibel case.   The case was the longest running court case in English legal history taking two and half years and pitted the corporate giant McDonald's against two activists, Helen Steel and Dave Morris.  The pair had published leaflets highlighting McDonald's unethical and environmentally destructive activities.  McDonald's sued them for libel. Helen and Dave were refused legal aid and had to defend themselves whilst McDonald's hired a top team of lawyers.

Although they were able to prove to the courts satisfaction that McDonald's:
  • did 'exploit children' with their advertising;
  • did produce 'misleading' advertising;
  • were 'culpably responsible' for cruelty to animals
  • were 'antipathetic' to unionisation
  • and did pay their workers low wages.
They were unable to prove that all their allegations were true and were ordered to pay McDonald's £60,000. They of course didn't.

In March 1999 the Court of Appeal ruled further in their favour acknowledging that it was true that
"if one eats enough McDonald's food, one's diet may well become high in fat etc., with the very real risk of heart disease."
They reduce the damages to £40,000 which Helen and Dave didn't pay.

Instead they took the UK government to the European Court of Human Rights on the basis that the UK's law impeded the public's right to criticise multinationals. They won. The Court of Human Rights accepted that the trial had breached their rights to freedom of expression and a fair trial.

McDonald's got large legal bills and lots of bad publicity. They however continued their unethical business practices. 

There is a full length movie McLibel which tells the story.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Blessed are the ASBOs for they protect us from distress

I missed this story in April but it is worth returning to.


In November and December 2008 Harry Taylor, an activist philosopher, left home made posters in the "prayer room" of John Lennon Airport in Liverpool. His posters made fun of various religions.  I think this is an example of one.

Love your neighbour...Not gays, obviously

Good old fashion satire! Others included a No Nails Advert with the addition of a smiling Jesus and in another Suicide Bombers arriving at the gates of Heaven were given the tragic news that they had run out of virgins.

Taylor is an atheist, a survivor of sexual abuse (by a Catholic Priest) and suffers from depression. He was in my humble opinion making a legitimate point.

Enter the Law

The Airport Chaplain reported his posters to the police claiming she was 'insulted' and 'deeply offended'. The Police investigated, identified Taylor as the author and sent a file of to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).  Taylor found himself charged with three counts of causing religiously aggravated harassment, alarm or distress. He was convicted and sentenced to to six months in jail suspended for two years, ordered to perform 100 hours' of unpaid work and pay £250 costs. In addition he was issued with an ASBO banning him from carrying religiously offensive material in a public place. 

Distress free or Liberated?

I find many things distressing, poverty, religious bigotry, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the treatment of refugees, MacDonald's, racism, child abuse, the abuse of corporate crime, the death penalty ... I could go on.  But these are real and substantial problems which require political and social action to resolve. My distress motivates me to change them.

The distress Harry Taylor was convicted of causing was about the sensibilities of people of faith. Obviously people have the right to religious belief, but we must also be conscious of the damage caused by organised religions.  John Lennon, whom the airport in which these 'crimes' took place is named after was aware of this and in his classic Utopian song Imagine it is significant his opening line challenged his listener to 'Imagine there is no Heaven' before calling for 'a world with no religion'. Are those people who have 'faith' so insecure that they need legal protection from satire?   

There is evidence that societies are worse off 'when they have God on their side' and whilst I oppose the oppression of any group I think this is very different to offending or causing distress to people's sensibilities. Liberation, equality and justice are in danger of being eclipsed by the avoidance of causing someone offence. This emphasis suggest that inequality, discrimination and oppression are fine if we get the language right. In fact honest and at times brutal language are essential parts of these struggles. Satire hurts when it hits it target. It causes alarm and distress. That is worth celebrating. Highlighting certain aspects of religions, particular those that oppress others, is legitimate and progressive.

Meanwhile if Taylor was to pop into his local book shop and buy Richard Dawkin's God Delusion he would, by 'carrying religiously offensive material in a public place', clearly be in breach of his ASBO and if caught and prosecuted could go to jail for five years.  Maybe even a copy of Imagine would be enough to have him locked away - for public protection! 

Hat Tip to for the picture

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Peter Jay - The case for Abolishing Prisons

Peter Jay, economist, former UK Ambassador to the US and journalist was on the radio four programme Broadcasting House this Sunday where he was invited to talk about the possibility that politicians would, in the coming round of public expenditure, actual 'think the unthinkable'.  He concluded they wouldn't but in illustrating his point said
I for example as an administrator/policy maker would say 'abolish the prisons', close them, get rid of the staff, sell the sites, we know beyond a shadow of doubt they perform absolutely no valuable penal function, they don't reform people, they don't deter people, they are unbelievably expensive - it costs more to send someone to prison than to send them to Eton.
The programme is on-line until next Sunday here and Jay's comments start about 19 minutes and 30 seconds in.

Hat tip to Danny K of Transform for alerting me to this.  Danny is also on the programme and like Peter Jay talking common sense. In Danny's case this is calling for the legal regulation of all drugs. (About ten minutes in)

State Violence - From Derry to Soweto

34 years ago today ten thousand students demonstrated in Soweto, South Africa. The students had been involved in a school boycott since mid-May when the racist Apartheid South Africa Government had introduced a requirement that pupils in segregated Black schools would be taught in English and Afrikaans whereas white pupils could chose which of the two languages to study in.   The students march was largely peaceful but came into conflict with South African Police who opened fire killing over twenty students.

An excellent account by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick of the protest and the resultant state violence can be read here.

Yesterday saw the publication of the Saville Report following the Inquiry into Bloody Sunday were British soldiers opened fire on a peaceful march in Derry killing 14 demonstrators. This massacre took place four years before Soweto.  Yesterday's report has, after nearly 40 years, officially established that:
None was posing any threat of causing death or serious injury. In no case was any warning given before soldiers opened fire ... We have concluded that none of them [the British soldiers]fired in response to attacks or threatened attacks by nail or petrol bombers. No one threw or threatened to throw a nail or petrol bomb at the soldiers on Bloody Sunday.
As is so often the case it was the victims who were initially blamed.  both the British government and the British Army had claimed that the violence was the responsibility of those killed and their fellow demonstrators. now they accept this is not true and David Cameron has formally apologised stating that the killings 'were unjustified and unjustifiable.'

What these two incidents remind me is that much violence is not individual but carried out by the state in our name. In particular when those with legitimate grievances demonstrate they often provoke a violent response from the state.  These cases were not isolated but consistently happen throughout history. From Peterloo in Manchester in 1819 where those demanding representation in Parliament were slain by British troops to the civil rights marchers in Alabama who on the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965 were brutally attacked by State troopers and local police to the 2010 Thai Red Shirts whose campaign for real democracy is currently being ruthlessly crushed by the Thai state.

In tribute to those who died

Hat tip to the Bogside artists for the Derry picture

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

ASBO Madness: A Modern Innovation or an Old Tradition?

Apologies for my lack of posting recently, end of year exams to mark and moderate leave little time for reflection and writing.  So time to get blogging again.  I have a number of news stories collected over the past month and as I am also about to refocus on my research - the history of punishment - I thought it was time that I shared some of this.  So today's post draws on current news story and my research!

Firstly another ASBO news story.  From the Plymouth Herald I came across this news story:
Alcohol and toilet ban for Asbo beggar 
A HOMELESS woman has been banned by a court from begging and using the streets of Plymouth as a toilet. City magistrates have imposed an anti-social behaviour order on 23-year-old Natasha Tisdall for the next two months. The nine-clause interim order bans Tisdall from knocking on doors or stopping people in the street to ask for money. She is also barred from defecating or urinating in public in Plymouth other than in toilets. Tisdall is also prohibited from carrying open cans of alcohol and is barred from the city centre, Barbican and North Hill areas. Breaking any one of the prohibitions could land Tisdall in jail for up to five years.
The ASBO is a civil order whose violation is a criminal offence imprisonable for up to five years. It is therefore possible to criminalise behaviour which is not in itself criminal and it allows for the fast tracking of individuals on (or outside) the fringes of criminality into prison. The obvious question has always been that if the person is breaking the law why not use the standard procedures?  The answer I fear is often that there is insufficient evidence or a desire to utilise a punishment, normally prison, that the crime could not justify.

In this case the target of this fast tracking into prison is someone who is homeless and the court recognised suffered from a number of serious health problems. ASBO are very often used in this way, targeting someone vulnerable with real social needs who for whatever reasons appropriate services have failed to deal with satisfactorily. The failure of well resourced agencies is blamed on the vulnerable client who is given an order everyone knows they cannot comply with and then when the inevitable happens it resolved by punishing the victim.  The Homeless are a particular target of the ASBO and we know that a homeless person is 1400% more likely to end up in prison than the average member of the population.

But this is not a new phenomena.  My own research into the history of punishment reminds me daily about how from the beginning of mass imprisonment early in the nineteenth century their target was not serious criminals but the homeless, young working class, immigrants, the mad and the unemployed. The were imprisoned not in a formal court with a jury and due process but by Magistrates often operating in the parlour of the local pub. The nineteenth-century Justice also had hybrid Civil/Criminal laws to help them in this. The most significant was Master & Servant Law, the predecessor of employment law.  Employment was a civil contract but enforceable in Magistrates' court and carrying penal consequences for employees who could be whipped and imprisoned. Employers could however only face civil penalties like being ordered to pay unpaid wages.  The Magistrates were all of the employing class and there were cases of Magistrates imprisoning and whipping there own employees.  No detailed records were kept of the Justices activities but it is clear that Master and Servant Law was one of two categories which dominated there work.  The other major source was Vagrancy Law. Designed to criminalise homelessness the poor unemployed arriving at a new town were effectively deemed criminal and systematically imprisoned and whipped.

Sunday, 6 June 2010