The Ghost of Watt Tyler

Watt Tyler was one of the leaders of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. He was a slain by the King’s supporters after drinking a jug of beer “in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King's face.”

Monday, March 07, 2005

Open the gates...

I work part-time in an office near HMP Pentonville in North London. Although its sprawling white façade dominates Caledonian Road nobody - including me - seems to pay it much attention. But during my lunch hour today I spotted some families waiting expectantly outside the front gates and it made me think of all the lives caught up in the criminal justice system.

And that’s a lot of people. According to the
Prison Reform Trust the number of adult male prisoners is currently 68,479, which is the highest ever recorded total. In the last month the total population has increased by just under 1300, the equivalent of two medium sized jails. The director of the Prison Reform Trust, Juliet Lyon, said:

‘Until Government succeeds in its policy to reserve prison for serious and violent offenders, and unless the courts are prepared to send petty offenders out on community service or drug treatment orders and keep time spent in custody to a necessary minimum, then we are stuck with an overcrowded prison system patently failing to do its job to prevent re-offending.’
But is it government policy? The Home Office predicts the total prison population will rise to 87,500 by the end of the decade.

I wonder how many of Her Majesty’s current guests are innocent….

LA Naylor has just written a book (reviewed in the
Guardian on Saturday) about the criminal justice system. He argues the safeguards introduced after all the high profile miscarriages of justice in the 70 and 80s have made little difference as they have been repeatedly flouted.

Access to a solicitor is not automatic – only 14% of arrested people obtained legal advice at police station. I can personally testify this is a very important as suspects – yes, even innocent suspects – can feel under intense pressure to give the police want they want in order to end their ordeal.

Naylor also shows the Crown Prosecution Service routinely colludes with the police. Evidence that might help the defence is often withheld. Meanwhile police brutality and misconduct go unpunished. Not one officer has been successfully prosecuted in relation to any of the miscarriages that have littered the past two decades. Nor has one officer been successfully prosecuted for any of the 1,000 deaths in police custody between1969 and 1999.

Of course one of things Watt Tyler did - like all good revolutionaries - was open the prison