Prisoners on the outside: In our final essay on improving democracy, Paul Hill makes common cause with all those who have been silenced by injustice and inequity

Paul Hill
Thursday 05 May 1994 23:02

I KNOW what democracy is. Democracy is living in a society where you have free thought, equality, the right to choose to do whatever you want within the parameters of what's normal in society. And being afforded the mechanisms to educate yourself, to feed your family.

My name's Paul Hill. For 15 years I was imprisoned for crimes, horrendous crimes - the worst ever committed on the British mainland. In 1989 the establishment conceded grudgingly that I was innocent] Then, two weeks ago in a Belfast Court of Appeal, I was finally able to clear my name of another murder, of a British soldier. I have never experienced democracy. But I don't believe that most people in the United Kingdom have either.

I was born in a West Belfast Catholic ghetto. There was nothing democratic about where we lived. But there was still good respect for law and order within the community. We could play in the street till midnight. Mugging was unheard of. When I was very small, in the 1960s, I remember my family watching the news when Harold Wilson got in. My father said: 'Take no notice - it doesn't apply to us.'

From my own experience of being part of a community in Northern Ireland that never really identified with democracy, I can identify with a young guy in Moss Side in Manchester who never felt part of a democratic process. We've created another whole social class who are young people who have never been employed. They may have no respect for law and order at all, because as far as they were concerned, law and order never gave them any respect: they've got very low self- esteem.

We are told by politicians that democracy is the be-all and end-all. Apply it] Apply it to these people in West Belfast, to the blacks in Brixton, to the Asians in Southall by taking them in and making them a part of society. If you are not made inclusive, you will never be. In West Belfast, people asked for their basic democratic rights and they got beaten off the streets. If society doesn't embrace everyone within it equally and fairly, the exclusion of those people is going to undermine the whole of our stability.

According to the police, I was arrested on the morning of the 28th, and I was taken to Guildford police station in the afternoon of the 28th. And I'm not interviewed by any single police officer at all until four o'clock the next afternoon? When my barrister heard that this was what the police had alleged, he rolled about laughing. He just couldn't possibly believe that here was a suspect who was arrested for two atrocities . . . and I'm not even interviewed by any police officer until 24 hours later.

What was really happening was that I was being interrogated all that day and all the night and all the next day, brutally. And you know, if there is no record of me being interrogated, how can I say I was?

Once wrongdoing has happened in a police station, the onus is on the accused to prove that wrongdoing - which is virtually impossible. Video cameras won't work because an assault by the police can happen in the car, or in the toilet. Tape recorders don't work either, because you're already broken before the recorder's even turned on. Legal representation should be guaranteed, absolutely guaranteed for every single person taken into a police station. Nothing should happen until your solicitor is there. This is what happens in the States.

Why should the police have the right to hold you for up to a week in custody without access to legal representation? The Police Complaints Bureau says that 95 per cent of all the people who make confessions make them on the first day. So there is no need to keep anyone in a police station without representation for the three or four days that they can be now.

One day in Winchester prison, I was taken downstairs and locked in a white room, completely bare apart from the statutory nine-inch window. And after a while I realised that they were starving all the senses. I also learnt later from reading that under normal prison conditions the brain is damaged irreversibly after 12 years. And in order to accelerate this process, they give you these massive doses of solitary confinement. And I thought - what kind of society wants to do this to someone?

Had they taken me to prison, put me in a cell and left me completely alone for 15 years, I would have been a wreck. But they gave me constant stimulation because I was moved 54 times - between 35 or 36 different prisons. So I was meeting new people, and I was meeting people I'd met before, and there was always something stimulating going on.

And I thought for a long time that they were doing this to keep me healthy] I really did] They were doing it to try and break me down, to disorientate me. I'd be at Parkhurst, and I'd be getting a visit tomorrow morning. I'd be moved tonight and I'd be in Hull, and my mother would be travelling to the Isle of Wight. I've left the prison and seen my mother standing outside as I was being driven 250 miles the other way]

They did that to me and hundreds of other young men, who were in for ridiculous things in relation to what I was in prison for. There's no need to treat those people like that. If you treat people like that and then throw them back on society, you'll have angry, embittered young men going out there. These young men come out, their families have broken up - probably their mother's the only person in the house, maybe with three or four other kids. What's that kid going to do? Straight back to crime.

Prison is only a microcosm of society at large: the same rules apply. If you treat people uncaringly, you will create brutalised, desperate people. It's the same inside as out.

Most people in prison don't tend to say they are innocent when they are, because prisons are a very macho environment. It's actually the opposite: people tend to say they did more than they did because of the environment they are in. It was common knowledge in Wormwood Scrubs, among black prisoners, who had killed PC Blakelock - and it wasn't the people who were in for killing PC Blakelock. It was common knowledge to every long-term prisoner in Parkhurst Prison, who had killed the young man at Yew Tree Farm for which three people were serving life imprisonment. And if every long-term prisoner in Parkhurst was in possession of his name, then so was the security officer and so were the police.

Once you are through the court system there's no real benefit to the system to find you innocent, and there's no real benefit to the police to find the guilty people. We not only have innocent people in prison, but we have people who have committed murders still on the streets.

They finally had to concede that something untoward happened in Guildford police station. We have evidence that proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that officers concocted and fabricated what they said before a court of law as 'contemporaneous notes taken at the time of interview'. They were not. They were actually written up some time afterwards, when they colluded in an interview room at Guildford police station.

When I first came out of prison there were moments when I would have liked to see those police officers go to prison for the same period that I did. But on reflection, I have no wish to see very junior police officers being held accountable for the actions of senior officers. Senior police officers knew what was happening in Guildford police station.

I would like to see individuals being able to take recourse to the European Court of Human Rights without having to go to the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. It would take 18 months to two years. And if the European Court of Human Rights finds in their favour, then I don't think Britain should be able to derogate from that ruling.

There comes a point when anger is a healthy thing. When I was in prison no matter what they could do to me physically, they couldn't make me mentally guilty. Anger is a motivating force. But hatred destroys the individual. So I was angry but I never really hated the people who were doing this to me. I certainly dislike them, but I knew if I continuously hated these people, I would be eaten away inside. So I stayed as angry as I possibly could, and it gave me a sense of righteousness and an indignation towards these people. And I was lucky, I survived.

If you treat people well and give them something to live for, so that they have a zest for life, they're going to behave well. And that applies to all of us: the working class in West Belfast, Catholic and Protestant; the women in Holloway Prison, the blacks in Moss Side, the unemployed up and down the land. We should treat these people as human beings, not as people who we prey upon, not as people who the police force see as a direct threat to them, not as people the establishment would view as something other than themselves.

Only then will we have a democracy which we all want to join.

This is an edited version of last night's 'Opinions', the last in a series produced by Open Media for Channel 4's 'Bite The Ballot' week.

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