Martin Narey: A good prison lets inmates challenge the system

From the British Institute of Human Rights lecture given by the head of the prison service, at King's College London

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I would like to start with an obvious reality; prison can be a negative and a terrible place. We are, after all, in the business of taking away the most fundamental of liberties after the right to life, and so because of that I don't need any persuading, in so far as is consistent with the deprivation of liberty, that prisoners' human rights should be protected. But prison should do much more than that. Because prison can occasionally, and more often than it used to, restore human rights to those who, for whatever reason, are effectively denied the broader rights that we all take for granted, including education, work and, ultimately, family life.

I would like to start with an obvious reality; prison can be a negative and a terrible place. We are, after all, in the business of taking away the most fundamental of liberties after the right to life, and so because of that I don't need any persuading, in so far as is consistent with the deprivation of liberty, that prisoners' human rights should be protected. But prison should do much more than that. Because prison can occasionally, and more often than it used to, restore human rights to those who, for whatever reason, are effectively denied the broader rights that we all take for granted, including education, work and, ultimately, family life.

Let me start with some basics. The prison population this morning was 70,108. My staff now tell me on a morning if the prison population hasn't reached a new record. It has reached a new record almost every day for some time now. Less than 10 years ago, at the end of 1992, the population was 40,700 and most experts at that time, in the wave of optimism following the Woolf report on Strangeways, believed the population was set to fall, not grow. We now imprison a greater proportion of our population than any country in Europe, having overtaken Portugal in the last few weeks.

Imprisonment, whatever number we lock up, inevitably presents a series of human-rights conflicts. Let me just give three examples. First of all, and most basically, by failing to deprive prisoners of their liberty, we would be infringing the rights of many members of the public, including, in the most serious cases, the right to life for those who would be in danger from the most dangerous prisoners.

Secondly, in prison today and every day I will have some hundreds of prisoners whose privacy will be invaded by being kept under constant, sometimes continuous, supervision to try to stop them from killing themselves. We are, by any measure, invading their right to privacy, but we are trying to retain their right to life. A third example, and a painful and personal one, concerns the catastrophe of nearly two years ago at Feltham when a young Asian boy called Zahid Mubarek was murdered by his psychopathic and racist cellmate. The failures that led to that murder were very many, but if, on the wing on which his killer had lived, we had routinely read all the letters the killer wrote and received, then the wing staff would have known that they had a dangerous racist on their hands. In fact we no longer do that. When I joined the service we read every letter incoming and outgoing and censored them. We now just look at a sample of letters. But that development in human rights in respecting the privacy of mail was one reason – not the only reason, by any means, but one reason – that led to our failing to keep someone alive.

So protecting human rights in prison can sometimes require a very delicate balance. My view is that the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into English law helps to ensure that that delicate balance is maintained, and I welcome the Act unequivocally. We will be, and are, a better prison service while our rules can be routinely challenged at court, and applications for judicial review, since the Act became part of English law, have doubled. Some actions have already been won by prisoners: for example those relating to the frequency of parole hearings.

More will be won by prisoners in the future, not least because the court's view of what is proper under the Act will change over time. But, on the other hand, some judicial reviews have supported our stance on some important issues; most controversially, perhaps, our ability to impose added days on to a prisoner's sentence in response to unacceptable behaviour.

Above all, what is important is that prisoners can use the act to challenge us; it would be a very unhealthy prison service indeed – as many around the world are – if that freedom were not allowed.

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