November 2014 articles archive:

Perverse verdict in the name of justice? Mutiny at High Down

High Down prison in Banstead may not be on the high seas but apparently it can be the scene of a mutiny.

High Down prison in Banstead may not be on the high seas but apparently it can be the scene of a mutiny. We understand now that, on land, mutiny relates to disorder in prisons and other correctional facilities.


A recent protest by eleven prisoners, all imprisoned at High Down Prison in Banstead, involved them barricading themselves in a cell and passing notes under the door of the cell. One such note declared “the reason for these capers is we are not getting enough food, exercise, showers or gym and we want to see the governor lively." another such note stated "If we get mackerel and dumplings we will come out." The protest, which took place over the course of two days, lasted seven and a half hours and led to the eleven men being accused of mutiny.


The reference to mackerel in their note led to the protest becoming known as the mackerel mutiny.


Their aim was to bring it to the attention of the public that they considered themselves to be hungry and in need of exercise and showers. They did not ask for more books, that may have been a step too far!


The case was heard at Blackfriars Crown Court and lasted three weeks. The defendants claimed they were protesting about Ministry of Justice cuts and denied trying to overthrow lawful authority . At the end of the trial the jury of twelve ordinary citizens found all eleven defendants not guilty.


Andrew Jefferies QC, one of the barristers representing the men, said "By its verdicts, the jury must have accepted that the defendants may have been legitimately protesting rather than intending to overthrow the prison authority."
Since cuts to the prison service had been implemented in September 2013 there had been a rise in complaints from within the prison.
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This trial has highlighted the serious problems that can arise when overcrowded prisons are forced to implement major changes while struggling to overcome budget cuts. 
As the governor of High Down said during the hearing, the government has ‘got it wrong’. Prisons are in meltdown.
It is unfortunate that so much money has been spent on this ultimately failed case when there are prisons across England and Wales crying out for more staff and resources.”
On hearing the verdict Crispin Blunt, MP for Banstead and a former Tory prisons minister, attacked Chris Grayling’s prison policy warning that the verdicts could spark unrest in other jails. He was not surprised at the acquittal bearing in mind the evidence from the prison's governor stating that the government had got it wrong and that the prisons were in meltdown.
Blunt, whose constituency the prison is in, went on to say;

"The failure to secure a conviction will shake prisons, which are now very tautly staffed, at greater risk of disorder, with some prisoners possibly misled into thinking they have some right of protest.

"They don’t and their interests will be best served by helping their prison regime help them make the best of their time in prison."

Chris Grayling's constituency of Epsom and Ewell is just down the road from Banstead. Grayling is the Lord Chancellor, Secretary of State for Justice and his role includes having responsibility for different parts of the justice system – the courts, prisons, probation services and attendance centres and he is leading the 'reform' of the criminal justice system.


There are instances from time to time of juries returning verdicts which appear to fly in the face of the law or the facts. This is not necessarily such a case exactly but it certainly signifies that the jury did not think the prisoners actions justified them being charged with mutiny and that there may have been some justification for the protest.  Such 'perverse' decisions still have an air of fairness about them in that the jury seem to have a sense of what is right or fair in such situations. However, as the jury do not have to give the reasons for their verdict, we do not know for certain. What we do know is that such cases do signify the independence of the jury.


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