Mr Howard and the incredible prison hulk

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The Independent Online
As Mr Michael Howard continues in his bid to put all potential voters behind bars before the election, it turns out that he has already occupied all available space on land. So Mr Howard has imported a floating prison from America to be moored off Portsmouth and help to absorb our surplus prison population.

It seems likely that this will involve Mr Michael Howard in further legal problems, and further clashes with the judiciary, so to explain all the legal niceties of this new move by Mr Michael Howard, I have secured the services of Julius Martello QC, an expert both on marine law and megalomania, to answer some of your questions on this exciting new development in Britain's naval heritage.

It seems to me that Mr Howard is just taking us back to the grim Victorian days of the floating hulks, and I wonder if it is in Mr Howard's mind to go even further back and start sending other prisoners overseas to serve their sentences in Australia!

Julius Martello QC writes: Very funny, I am sure, but let us be serious for a little while. A moment's thought will show you that even Mr Michael Howard would not send prisoners to Australia to carry out their sentences. This is because Australia is now a sovereign power and would not accept them. My understanding is that Mr Michael Howard is seriously considering sending our prisoners overseas to somewhere like the Falklands, or Gibraltar or ... no, that's it. To the Falklands or Gibraltar. Or maybe St Helena. There's a precedent, after all.

Won't the inhabitants be up in arms?

Julius Martello QC writes: Very possibly. But as they do not have a vote in the election, I do not suppose that will worry Mr Michael Howard.

This new prison ship due to be anchored off Portsmouth, will it be subject to maritime law?

Julius Martello QC writes: Undoubtedly. It will become the first prison in Britain which will be, from a legal point of view, part of our merchant navy.

Does this mean that, for instance, the governor of the prison will be the equivalent of a ship's captain and will be empowered to marry prisoners?

Julius Martello QC writes: I think it would be very unwise for a prison governor to marry a prisoner. Especially if he were married already.

No, what I meant was - oh, never mind. But one thing that springs to mind is that all sea-going vessels must have adequate emergency routines and regular life-boat drill. On the other hand, prisoners are usually left locked up in their cells for most of the day. How can these two be reconciled? Would it not be illegal under maritime law to confine passengers to their quarters, for fear of their drowning in an emergency?

Julius Martello QC writes: Normally speaking, yes. But I gather Mr Michael Howard is of the opinion that a drowned prisoner is a prisoner who will not reoffend. There is also a plan to have the prison ship surrounded by armed guards in rowing boats to prevent escape.

And to shoot anyone who does?

Julius Martello QC writes: Well, I am not sure of that But very possibly Mr Michael Howard may be of the opinion that a shot, drowned prisoner is even less likely to reoffend.

It has been forecast on all sides that the more prisoners Mr Michael Howard tries to cram into jail, the more likely there is to be some sort of explosion of anger. Now, the usual result of a prison revolt is a roof- top demonstration, but in the case of HMS `Hulk', it is quite likely that the lads will take over the prison ship AND TAKE IT OUT TO SEA! Now, once they have gone past the three-mile limit, could they not re-register the boat as an independent state and apply for membership of the United Nations?

Julius Martello QC writes: Hmm. I suppose theoretically it is possible ... although it might be construed also as piracy.

Say, for instance, that Mr Michael Howard himself decided to visit the floating prison. Sounds unlikely that he would visit a prison, but let's say so. Let's say that while he is on board the floating prison there is a takeover by the prisoners and the ship is taken out to sea. Let's say that the new crew of the HMS Hulk decide to have a democratic trial of Mr Michael Howard and after a fair hearing - there will, after all, be a few solicitors and barristers among the prisoners - he is condemned to walk the plank. Let's say that as Mr Michael Howard is dragged to the plank weeping and screaming and begging for the mercy he never showed anyone else ...

Sadly, that is all we have time for. But rest assured that Julius Martello QC will be back soon to answer more of your sea-tinged legal questions.

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