Jail fail: UK overcrowded prisons, indeterminate sentencing slammed

The British prison system is facing a multitude of problems, from overcrowding and a rise in custodial deaths to a new unanimous ruling by the European court of human rights declaring indeterminate prison sentences in the UK system illegal.

The ruling by the European Court of Human rights in Strasbourg on Tuesday came in the case of three men who had been jailed in the UK on “indeterminate sentences”, essentially sentenced to jail without a fixed amount of time to serve. Indeterminate sentences have been legal in the UK since 2005, designed to imprison criminals of an extremely violent nature that may prove a threat to society if released prematurely.

Brett James, Nicholas Wells and Jeffrey Lee had been given automatic indeterminate sentences, which included serving a minimum sentence. Afterwards they would have to complete a certain curriculum of courses such as “anger management” or “dealing with substance abuse” to be eligible for parole and release.

In all instances, the prisoners had been waitlisted while trying to take the necessary pre-requisite courses in their next step towards evaluation for parole. The men took their case to the to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the government was infringing on their right to freedom by denying them access to the courses needed to facilitate their release.

The European court found unanimously in the favor the three men, stating that although the delay in allowing to them to take their courses was due to a lack of resources, that same lack of resources was the result of a lack of planning caused by the original implementation of such a “draconian” law. The court also noted that the delay was “considerable”, stating that the men “had no realistic chance of making objective progress” towards a probation evaluation.

The inadequate resources "appeared to be the consequence of the introduction of draconian measures for indeterminate detention without the necessary planning and without realistic consideration of the impact of the measures," the court said.

In addition to ruling their imprisonment “arbitrary” and “unlawful”, it ordered the UK penal system to pay the men 14,000 pounds in damages and 30,000 pounds to pay for legal fees collectively.

European judges sit at the European court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, eastern France. (AFP photo/Frederick Florin)
European judges sit at the European court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, eastern France. (AFP photo/Frederick Florin)

Deaths on the rise, but so is prison population

The court’s ruling comes only days after Ombudsman Nigel Newcomen released a new report on a rise in deaths in custody in the UK penal system. Newcomen’s report presented a 15 per cent rise in prison deaths over the course of the past year, and called the trend “particularly worrying.”

The UK’s prison watchdog, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), started keeping records of prison deaths in 2004, and Newcomen says the 229 deaths are the highest level recorded since the PPO took responsibility for the audits.

“Overall, numbers of deaths rose significantly compared to the previous year – the third year in a row where the number of deaths has risen,” Newcomen said in his 2011-2012 report.

“This growth is disturbing – and also a significant challenge to a demand-led investigative body facing squeezed resources.”

Another troubling report by the Prison Reform Trust released in August claimed that two out of three prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded, with 7,294 more inmates incarcerated than the system was designed to hold.

An anonymous former prisoner told the BBC he spent three years in an overcrowded prison where he was forced to spend 23 hours in his cell in 2002.

"It was like being put in a cage made for one animal and then getting two or three other people in. There was a lot of stress, anxiety and violence. It was one big stress pit is the only way I can describe it,” he said.

These developments spell a summer of bad news for the British legal system, and it remains to be seen what measures can be taken to slow the rise of Britain’s prison population and what the future holds for the UK’s “draconian” indeterminate sentences.