When convicts know the law inside out

A lifer is running the only legal advice centre in a UK jail - from his own cell.

Behind the rolls of razor wire and insurmountable red brick walls of HM Prison Stocken, set in the heart of rural Leicestershire, is a cell in B wing crammed with legal documents. Bookshelves lining the walls groan under the weight of law volumes. Pinned to the cell door is a sign that reads "Prison Law Advice Centre" - this is the only legal centre within the UK prison system. It is also John Hirst's prison cell, where he serves a discretionary life sentence for manslaughter.

Hirst and his centre, which is not recognised by the Prison Service, have inspired such notoriety that he advises other prisoners who write in from all over the prison system. Not only that but, he claims, he also answers queries on penal law from solicitors and barristers too. In just five years he has turned himself from a "violent and disruptive" prisoner into a self-styled barrack- room lawyer. His legal record so far extends to 40 cases fought both within the Prison Service's internal judicial system and right up to the High Court.

"Before I would try and get my way with violence," he says. "But the guards are equipped to handle it and that is what they expect and understand. What scares them more than anything else, is the law - that they don't understand at all."

Hirst, a persistent offender from the age of 20, resulting in ever longer prison sentences, once had status as a "category A" prisoner because he was deemed such a risk to the public if he escaped. Now, though, this diminutive man with a raging intensity is more of a thorn in the side of the authorities than ever before. The transformation from "law breaker to law maker" began when he recovered pounds 300 in the county court for some vinyl records lost during a prison move.

And he recounts his most hard fought, successful legal victory with relish. It began when he was charged with an offence which "in any way offends against good order and discipline" while in Hull prison. His crime was to power a CD player by using two wires connected to a light fixture in his cell. The adjudication found against him and he was punished with a loss of privileges. Furthermore, he was also incarcerated in the punishment block for seven days. A subsequent complaint he lodged to a Prison Service area manager proved futile.

Undaunted and determined to see justice enacted, Hirst applied for judicial review in the High Court over his segregation and original charge. Then he lodged a second application when he was moved to Durham prison shortly afterwards, and again placed in the punishment block. The applications were successful and to pour salt on the wounds of the prison governors, he later won pounds 3000 compensation in a private action against the then governor of Durham prison.

John Hirst has now progressed to tackling all injustices brought to his attention within prison walls. His only fee is "a bit of money or maybe a bit of weed". But the rewards are far greater, he says. "I do it for justice. I am looked on as a right pain in the arse and that is the greatest compliment I could ever have."

Yet Hirst, 46, represents a growing number of jail-house lawyers who are finding law a better tool for asserting their rights in traditional prison violence. Rod Morgan, professor of criminal justice at Bristol University explains: "Recently there has been an explosion of prisoners' litigation and particularly prisoners pursuing civil claims. There is a growing awareness of prisoners' rights and they are more able to weigh up the options and pursue their own grievances."

No statistics are available on the phenomenon. However, Vicky King of the Prisoners' Advice Centre, a legal service for inmates, is astounded by how her caseload has rocketed since she set up the service in 1991. "We're getting busier and busier and have 700-800 cases on file," she explains. "There have always been prisoners who study criminal law and follow their cases and appeals and so on. But it is people like John Hirst and other lifers who pursue civil law actions that are becoming more common.

"Now we get calls from guys who have been inside for 16 years and say, 'I've never done this before but I really want to take a case up against the Prison Service. And many we speak to are aware of the power of judicial review and other legal terms," she says.

Many credit ex-prisoner Mark Leech, award-winning playwright and author of the Prisoners' Handbook, as a legally pioneering inmate. During a life in prison for a range of crimes including arson, he has taken out 42 actions ranging from county court level right up to the Court of Appeal. He once won pounds 110 damages for a prison officer's failure to answer his cell bell. And opened the way for more than pounds 1m for claims against the Home Office after challenging deductions from prisoners wages as unlawful.

"Prisoners are finding there is a better way forward on the floor of a court than protesting on a rooftop during a riot," he says. "Prisoners also know that they cannot be physically punished or beaten up for taking legal action and not fighting." Leech accounts for the rise in civil litigation, as do penal reform experts, by courts and judges becoming more willing to listen to prisoners cases. Tim Owen, a barrister who has spent the past 10 years involved in prisoners' rights and the law, says: "The attitude of the courts has changed and they see prisoners as citizens behind bars and that their civil rights should survive behind bars as well. Consequently, they are willing to set standards of procedure on things like transfer and segregation"

However, Leech's and Hirst's expertise is fashioned out of a difficult part of the law. Prison legislation is enshrined in the Prison Act 1952 and the secondary legislation in the Prison Rules 1964. Legal theory appears simple, but in day to day practice it is complex to interpret, says Vicky King. "It is a very murky area. It is only in the past few years that proper text books have started to appear on the topic. Before, very little was known." Prison law - Text and Materials, widely held to be the most authoritative text book on the subject, only appeared in 1993.

When he began his first action, Hirst called on six solicitors to help. They were so mystified by penal law only one agreed to assist with the case.

Prisoners like John Hirst are mainly self taught, particularly in penal law. The alternative is to turn to a correspondence course. Currently, there is an external law degree course by London University, tutored by Wolsey Hall in Oxford. And some prisons will run law courses when demand from prisoners is sufficient.

Yet the benefits of penal law study and then employing what has been learnt can be psychological too, says John Staples, editor of the Prison Service Journal and governor of HM Prison Full Sutton. "It has always been a way of adapting to the deprivations that prison brings. There are always a number in every prison who do things in a very legalistic way with complaints and requests."

However, Hirst is swift to rebut these claims in his eagerness to show how much his new found calling means. He says: "I would forgo my right to leave here if I had to stop studying and practising law." Future aims are to set up a legal advice centre on his release and to carry on with his work for prisoners' rights. His release, though, will be decided by a Discretionary Lifer Panel. "They may very well say that I have aggravated everything by always suing them. But I will still carry on if it means my release is postponed. It's about principles."

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