BOOK REVIEW / Stirring up the porridge: 'Prison Law: Text and Materials' - Stephen Livingstone & Tim Owen: OUP, 45 pounds / 22.50 pounds

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THE five-day orgy of violence and destruction that swept through Hull's maximum security wing in September 1976 put the jail out of action for more than a year. It also earned the prison a place in penal history on a couple of counts. Eight prison officers were convicted at York Crown Court of assaulting prisoners in the aftermath of the riot and, for the first time, too, seven of the rioting prisoners (inspired by the Canadian Ronald St Germain) challenged the infamously unfair Prison Disciplinary System in the courts - and won.

When the High Court restored the forfeited remission in the landmark case of St Germain, it was the first time our senior judges had shoved a firm judicial foot in the prison door. It was that willingness, coupled with a recognition by prisoners that the courts had a legitimate place in penal reform, that subsequently provoked the plethora of important penal case law which this impressive book so successfully charts. As a prisoner, and one who has successfully sued the prison authorities on more than 30 occasions - in every legal arena from the County Court to the House of Lords - I only wish Prison Law had been available a decade ago.

The foreword for this work, the vade mecum for prison lawyers on both sides of the wall, is written by Stephen Sedley QC. Until his recent elevation to the Queens Bench Division of the High Court, Sedley had been at the cutting edge of penal case law for more than 20 years. Tim Owen, one of a handful of barristers who specialise in prison law, and his co-author Stephen Livingstone, a well-respected academic lawyer and Director of the Centre for International and Comparative Human Rights Law at Belfast University, provide clear insight into this rapidly developing field of domestic and European law. They also examine the legal framework by which our prisons are governed - often unlawfully, as the cases in this book reveal.

Although prisoners have not won every legal challenge, we have been successful in the majority of important cases in which new legal ground has been broken. Prison Law traces this development, explaining cases with a minimum of legalese and demonstrating that, in the decade and a half since St Germain, the courts have intervened in almost every aspect of prison life, often being the catalyst for subsequent reforming legislation. The Court of appeal in Wilson, for example, gave all discretionary lifers the right to see their parole reports - this was almost a year before the Government managed to enshrine that right in statute. The recent case of ex. p Doody et al in the House of Lords has done much the same for mandatory lifers.

In one of my own cases, the House of Lords made all prison governors answerable to the courts for their disciplinary decisions - and prompted in the process the 1989 amendment to the Prison Rules which finally reformed the Prison Disciplinary System.

Complaints about inter-prison transfers, segregation, security classification and medical consent are some of those that prisoners have been persuaded to write on paper for the courts - rather than on bed linen for the public - and as a result we have found ourselves invested with legal rights hitherto unknown in the penal arena. The power to grant legal representation at disciplinary hearings, the right to call and question witnesses and even the right not to be racially discriminated against in prison work are among the hundreds of complaints upheld by the courts since the tide began to turn with St Germain.

A decade and a half later, that tide shows no sign of ebbing, penal case law continues to develop and, according to one High Court judge, the scope of such challenges is expanding 'at the rate of the universe'. In such a climate, the continuing usefulness of Prison Law seems assured - though it has to be said that its current price puts it beyond reach of most prisoners.