`There are times when I wish I was back in jail'

Freedom can bring more injustice for those who have been wrongfully imprisoned, says Paul Donovan

For years innocent prisoners dream of being vindicated and making that journey through the door of the Court of Appeal to freedom. But for many of those who have made that journey, the much-awaited day has proved to be a gateway to further problems. The irony for the likes of the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and Judith Ward is that they would have been far better treated by the state had they actually done the crimes for which they were convicted.

When Judith Ward was cleared of murder charges relating to the M62 bombing in 1973 she had spent 18 years in prison. "They gave me pounds 35, a hand-written note to produce at the DSS and threw me out on the street," she says.

One problem for released innocent prisoners is obtaining an identity. Judith Ward found that without proof of identity, such as gas or electricity bills, it was impossible to open a bank account or obtain a passport.

Prem Sivalingham, cleared of murder in May 1994, was refused a bank account by one bank and only granted one with another bank after the Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn stood as a referee.

Ms Ward contrasts the difference in her situation to that of convicted prisoners. "Convicted prisoners don't have the same problems because people are warned ahead of your arrival. They are told who you are, what you are, there's a letter from the prison and a probation officer to help all the way."

Accommodation presents another problem. As part of the release plan for convicted prisoners there must be an address for them to go to. If there is no family home available, a probation officer will ensure there is a place at a hostel for them. Council house accommodation may also be arranged. For innocent prisoners accommodation is a different story.

"It took minutes to go from prisoner to free person," says Ms Ward. "I walked out in the clothes I stood up in." Both she and Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four stayed at with their solicitor, Gareth Pierce, until a more permanent address could be found.

Mr Sivalingham stayed with a member of his support campaign for months after his release before finding a permanent address. Others were less fortunate. Paul and Wayne Darvel who were cleared of their convictions by the Court of Appeal in the early Nineties were reported recently to be living on the street.

When Ms Ward finally found somewhere to live there were problems with the mortgage. The lenders wanted to know where she had been living for the past three years. It was only as a result of the estate agent taking a personal interest and offering his own guarantee that she was able to obtain a mortgage at all, she says.

The longer a person spends in prison, the more things change in the outside world. There were no pelican crossings or cash dispensers when the Birmingham Six were incarcerated in the Seventies. For a long-term prisoner for whom operating a door handle is a novel experience, contemplating busy roads, using public transport and just getting around generally present obstacles. The contrast with the regimented system in prison is such that some prisoners have even spoken of missing prison.

A year after Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six was released he said in a newspaper interview: "Sometimes I feel like bursting into tears or I have just to walk away ... There are times when I wish I was back in jail."

Convicted prisoners are gradually re-integrated into society through day and weekend release. "Convicted prisoners also receive counselling and help regarding families and relationships," says Helen Schofield of the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo). For innocent prisoners there is no such help available.

Billy Power is the only member of the Birmingham Six who remains married to his first wife. While the wives were often the mainstay of the campaign, different problems presented themselves once the men were released.

Paul Hill of the Guildford Four described how difficulties can arise "as a result of a male being once again in a household where the female has for many years been the dominant figure". Anne Whelan, the mother of Michael Hickey, has no illusions about the problems she is likely to face when the Bridgewater Four are finally released. "When they come out will be the loneliest time - I am dreading it," she says.

For the wives of the Birmingham Six the conviction of their husbands for the pub bombings threw their lives into turmoil. They lost their jobs, lived on social security and were forced to keep moving house because of the intimidation they suffered when local people found out who they were. The families' lives were dominated by prison visits and campaigning to establish the men's innocence.

The prisoners and their families need support and counselling but there is none available. Dr Grounds, a consultant who examined the Birmingham Six, likened their psychological condition to that of the victims of war atrocities who need to relearn the skills they acquired in childhood. This process is still going on in many cases.

The probation service ensures that convicted prisoners are signed on at social security and makes appointments with employment services. None of this help is available to innocent prisons. Few have worked since release finding the change of circumstances too much to handle. They move from a highly regulated prison existence where they are told when to eat, sleep and exercise to a world of looking after themselves. Mr Power says: "We're unemployable in more than one sense. For 17 years we've been in prison without work in a regulated system. What preparation is that to hold down a job in the real world?"

Ms Ward has probably progressed furthest of the innocent prisoners in terms of work and educational achievements. She wrote an autobiography and did some work for Birnbergs solicitors before starting a course in criminology. She is also an active campaigner for prisoners' rights with the Britain and Ireland Human Rights Centre.

Compensation awards are supposed to make up for the lack of aftercare in the case of innocent prisoners. However, the grudging way in which the compensation issue is dealt with may betray the real agenda of the Home Office, which is damage limitation. No innocent prisoner has yet received a final settlement for the years they have spent inside. The Guildford Four have been out for seven years.

Mr Power has received two interim payments of pounds 50,000 and pounds 150,000 since his release in 1991. He has been offered another pounds 50,000 by way of final settlement. The breakdown is pounds 225,000 for wrongful imprisonment, pounds 50,000 for loss of earnings over 17 years, pounds 50,000 for loss of future earnings and pounds 25,000 to the Power family for their expenses incurred over the years of campaigning and prison visits.

The final offer made by the "independent" assessor Sir David Calcutt is put on a "take it or leave it" basis. In Mr Hill's case, Sir David has deducted some pounds 25,000 by virtue of his having been in prison before and so the experience being less traumatic the second time round. Another vagary of the compensation system is the onus placed on the vindicated person to put in a claim. Some prisoners have received no compensation at all due to a failure to claim.

Paul May, who was chairman of the Birmingham Six and East Ham Two campaigns, regards the grudging attitude to compensation and the lack of aftercare as a way of pretending that no abuse has been committed.

Mr May compares the treatment the Birmingham Six have received to what would have happened had they been guilty of the crimes for which they were cleared. The six men would have been due for parole in November 1991 and would have got the full support of the probation service. There would have been a planned programme with home release and periods of readjustment to the outside world. There would also have been counselling and help with social security and job appointments.

Mr May suggests there should be an agency that builds up a body of experience of past miscarriage of justice cases. "The burden rests on the families and the campaigns who support the prisoners through their years in prison," he says.

Napo is aware that innocent prisoners are an unsupported group of people, says Ms Schofield. "If they came to the probation service, we would support them, but there is no statutory obligation for us to do so."

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