HC Deb 21 November 1955 vol 546 cc1219-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wills.]

12.45 a.m.

Mr. Wilfred Fienburgh (Islington, North)

The point which I want to discuss tonight involves a rather squalid and sordid story. It is, fortunately, the kind of affair which is not often raised in the House, and I want quite definitely at the beginning to say that I realise full well that the weight of evidence which will be brought against the case I shall deploy by the Under-Secretary of State will far outweigh any case which I shall be able to bring.

I am raising one of those unfortunate cases of a prisoner in one of Her Majesty's prisons who alleges that he was forcibly and brutally treated by the warders who were in charge of him. It is not the sort of case which is very often brought to the House. I hope that among the several reasons is the fact that it does not often happen. There are, of course, cases in which prisoners offer provocation to their warders, and I suppose that in theory the warder should not rise to the provocation but be angelic and civil and respond in reasonable terms. That is asking a little much of a human being who is a prison officer.

In general, the number of cases brought forward is pretty small, but after having had this case brought to my attention some time ago, and having discussed it with people particularly interested in penal reform, the conclusion which I and they have reached is that, although in theory this sort of incident should never happen, in practice it sometimes does, and in fact it is never possible to prove such cases.

I will not say that there is deliberate collusion among prison officers to hide or suppress evidence, but it is only natural that a prison governor, the Home Secretary, or the Prison Commissioners, if they have to weigh in evidence the word of a convicted criminal—possibly one who has been convicted several times—and the word of a prison officer, the word of the prison officer will usually carry the day. Therefore, in this case I propose to outline the circumstances in some detail, because, frankly, I do believe the prisoner, or the ex-prisoner, who brought this story to me.

Quite honestly, he is a man with quite a career in Her Majesty's prisons. He assures me that there will be no return to Her Majesty's prisons, because the next sentence which he will almost certainly get will be preventive detention, which he is most anxious to avoid. If it is any help to the Under-Secretary, I will make that point in advance. It is because he is a man with a peculiar code of his own, who reckons that if he were to attack a warder and the warder were to respond in kind he would have no complaint, because that is the kind of code in which he lives, because he accepts that code and has yet persistently for several years now been nagging on this issue—and I have been in correspondence with the Home Secretary—that I am inclined to believe the substance of the story which I shall try briefly to outline.

The prison in question was Pentonville where he was serving a four-year sentence for receiving. He had nine previous convictions. He had once previously been on report. On this occasion he was on the top storey of the block of cells at Pentonville, I am sorry to have to go slightly into the domestic arrangements of Pentonville, but they come slightly into the case.

One of the difficulties is that water reaches the higher levels of Pentonville Prison only intermittently and spasmodically, and certainly not when prisoners in the lower cells are using the water supply. Therefore, when slopping-out is in progress—the Under-Secretary will appreciate the term—on the top corridor, there is usually a queue of prisoners with their slops, waiting to get rid of them at a time usually overlapping the breakfast-time. The prison officers are usually anxious to bring an end to these proceedings, because, first, they do not like the smell, and, secondly, because they want to get on with the day's work.

On this particular occasion the prisoner to whom I am referring was one of the last in the queue, and was ordered by the warder in charge to go back and take his slops back into his cell. He thereupon refused to do so, because, he said, he had had them there all night and he proposed to leave them on the landing. Whereupon he was told that he would be put on report for insolence. That is fair enough. He refused to do what he was told to do by a prison officer. He was therefore put on report the next day on this particular charge.

The procedure whereby prisoners are taken on report at Pentonville appears to be as follows. They are taken to the lower basement cells, which form both sides of a corridor, and along that corridor they are taken by prison officers to where the Governor or Deputy Governor sits to adjudicate. On this occasion—and I am assured it is the normal practice in Pentonville—the prisoner was taken forward for adjudication with both arms pinioned behind him while being led forward to the Deputy Governor, who was adjudicating that morning.

I understand this is the normal practice, and I suppose it is the prison equivalent of the "caps off" order which we had in the Army when marching in a man on a charge, a means of seeing that no violence was done to the officer who might be handing out justice. But his hands were seized, and he was marched towards the Deputy Governor, whereupon, being of an aggressive nature, he said, "Don't push me so hard"; whereupon they pushed him harder, he then tried to sit on the floor and was then kicked smartly on the ankles, prodded in the kidneys with a key by one of the warders, and taken up to the Deputy Governor.

So far he is making no charge of brutality. He tried to sit down on the floor and was pushed along. He complained to the Deputy Governor at the time, and the Deputy Governor said he had seen nothing. The charge was made, he received three days' solitary confinement, with certain loss of privileges and forfeitures, and he was then taken back to his cell to stay in the solitary confinement to which he had been sentenced.

I understand that while in the cell in solitary confinement, prisoners are confined there most of the day, are allowed out for some measure of exercise, and there is usually a bell handle inside the cell which they can ring to call attention to the fact that they need to go to the lavatory, or for some other purpose. In this case the bell was apparently not working. The prisoner, now my constituent, says that he heard the officers disconnect the bell before they put him in, and he suggests that that is the normal practice of the officers—and admittedly they are overworked, understaffed and underpaid. He says that this is a frequent practice of theirs to avoid the trouble of having to respond to these bells too often.

However, for whatever reason there may be, the bell did not work. The man was still feeling a certain resentment at the way he had been manhandled down the corridor, and he wanted to report the incident to the Governor. The Under-Secretary will agree that it is necessary, when one wishes to make a charge against a prison officer for manhandling or brutal treatment, that the charge should be made immediately against the officer concerned. But, being unable to attract the attention of the warders by use of the bell, which was not working, the prisoner pounded heavily on the door, whereupon, after some time, the door was opened and four warders came in. I will not mention names in the House, although I have them and they are known to the Under-Secretary.

The first of these officers said, "You are the bloke who wants to see the Governor," and he hit the prisoner smartly about the face. I am giving all possible benefit of doubt to the prison officers concerned. They may have been working on the simple principle that here was a fairly violent character who had been complaining to the Governor already, and were warning him that if anyone was to be struck at the entrance to the cell they would do the striking first. They would be believed anyway if the prisoner ever complained about it. Their word has been believed, and I can see that that is precisely what went through their minds. They probably thought he was violent when they went in, so they went in quickly and got their blow in first.

Again, this is a thing which in theory should not happen, and I will insist should not happen in practice either. They closed the door behind them and left him. They came back again later, and this time frogmarched him backwards along the corridor and upstairs. They took him to the prison hospital where they said that they wanted the restraint jacket so that they could put him in it, as he was by then beginning to show signs of violence. I think that is only reasonable, if a man is being frogmarched backwards and has been struck in the face when he has been asking to see the prison Governor in order to make a complaint.

The story goes—and on this there was a degree of substantiation from the reports that I have had from the prison authorities and in correspondence with the Department—that the principal officer said that he had no power to allow them to place this prisoner in a restraint jacket and that only the doctor could do so. Then they took him away and put him in a strait jacket, the principal officer in charge of the hospital having said that he would give no authorisation and that if they did so they would do it on their own responsibility. From inquiries since, I have found out that the prison doctor was away, and that it is only a prison doctor who can give authority for a prisoner to be put in a strait jacket.

An outside civilian doctor was acting for the prison doctor, and he was contacted on the telephone by the warders concerned. He gave his permission over the telephone for the prisoner to be placed in a strait jacket. To his credit, he came down quickly and ordered the prisoner to be removed from the jacket. But something had happened in the meantime. It is not an easy matter to be a prisoner in a strait jacket, especially if one resists, and naturally after a degree of provocation it would require a strong-minded man not to show some resistance.

The principal officer from the hospital came round and saw the prisoner in the strait jacket and found that it had been intolerably tightened by knee pressure in the back so that it was causing acute pain in the groin, and he himself loosened the straps. As a result of that pressure, the prisoner concerned spent over 3½ weeks in the prison hospital. There is some dispute about the period that he spent in hospital. The prisoner said that he spent four weeks and three days in hospital, and the Commissioners accept the fact that he had spent over three weeks in there. But prison hospital is not the kind of place in which I would suggest people would be allowed to remain for slight causes. There must have been something wrong with the man.

The prisoner did not go back to his normal cell immediately but was kept under observation in a B.2 block of the prison for a further few weeks. When I took the matter up with the Prison Commissioners I was told that the reason that he had been kept in hospital for over three weeks was that he had slight bruises produced by having been put in a canvas restraint jacket. Surely he would not have been kept there for over three weeks for merely slight bruises. The Prison Commissioners insisted that the bruises had disappeared within four or five days of the incident.

Here we come across a peculiar story, in which I have made some close investigation myself. The prisoner told me that three or four weeks after the incident, after having first been refused permission to receive a visit from his wife unless he gave prior assurances that he would not discuss the assault which had been made upon him, his wife and daughter then aged seven came to see him in the prison. He tried to show them the bruises which he still had upon his body from the treatment by these four warders. He was dragged forcibly from the interview room by several warders.

The Prison Commissioners insisted that that interview never took place. I have talked to the daughter. This happened some three or four years ago, and the delay in having brought this matter to the attention of the House is due to the necessity to wait for the prisoner to serve his sentence and to the fact that I have been in correspondence on the matter. The daughter is now aged about ten. I have cross-questioned her closely, without her parents being present, and there is no doubt in my mind at all that the girl was there, she did see her father, she did see him try to show the bruises some four or five weeks after the incident, and she did see him being dragged out of the room. Her mother, who is a kindly and matronly sort of person, tells me the child still suffers at times because of this—because, after all, it is a very disturbing thing to see one's father, not brutally, but fairly roughly handled in this way.

I believe that this incident took place. There is confusion in the record about it, and it is quite possible that it might have happened. There is no doubt in my mind that the bruises were there long after the Prison Commissioners say they were not. If this was only a slight case of rough handling, why on earth was it necessary for this prisoner to be confined in the prison hospital for over three weeks?

I therefore say two things. First, on the question of the original assault by the warders who went into the room and struck him, even giving them the best possible benefit of the doubt, I believe this prisoner, although this is where, as I say, the advantage is all against me. After talking this case over, saying I did not believe him, and talking it over with him again and again, I have now come to believe this man's case is true and that these warders went in and struck him. They may have been only anticipating that probably he was going to try to get a blow in first; that may or may not have been in their minds, but they should not have done it, even if in charge of violent criminals. Secondly, there has been such a mix up over the evidence concerning the lengthy stay of this man in hospital that it cannot have been the case that only slight injuries were involved in placing him in a loose canvas restraint jacket; he must have been rather severely bent or leaned upon—as current American phraseology would have it.

Therefore, I rest this case, first, on the individual case, which I have already discussed with the Department; and secondly, that, having taken up this case and discussed this kind of thing with people interested in penal reform, and with one or two ex-warders, who are constituents of mine but are no longer in the prison service, there seems no doubt that unfortunately this sort of thing does happen from time to time; and although subjected to temptation and provocation, as prison officers no doubt must be on occasion, my belief is that it is entirely wrong that this sort of thing should happen.

1.3 a.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

The hon. Member for Islington. North (Mr. Fienburgh) has raised the case of a constituent, and I do not at all complain of the way in which he has done so. His information has necessarily come largely from the constituent's side of the story, and I think it right that I should try to tell the House what I can of this story having regard to what I have seen in the record.

The prisoner concerned, in September and October, 1951, received sentences which in aggregate totalled more than four years. He was properly allocated to Dartmoor and served the first part of his sentence at Pentonville. So far there is no difference between us. It was at Pentonville that the incidents which have been mentioned took place. Very careful investigation was made of these incidents fairly shortly after the events took place, and therefore, although they are now some years ago, it is possible, by looking at the records, to see accurately what took place.

On 24th May, 1952, the prisoner was reported for using improper and obscene language at 7.25 a.m. It seems that he had taken an intense dislike to one particular prison officer. I do not know whether there was any reason for that dislike. I know of no good reason, but it is quite clear that the beginning of these events arose because of that dislike. The prisoner was taken at once before the Governor, and the case was heard by the Governor between 10 and 11 o'clock that morning. There is, therefore some slight discrepancy between what the hon. Member has said and the facts.

The prisoner was awarded punishment on that occasion. two days confined to cell, two days No. 1 diet, he was reduced in grade 28 days and forfeited three days' remission of sentence. The prisoner was returned to his cell and there became violent and abusive. He made a tremendous noise in his cell, and started banging on the cell door with the chair. One prison officer looked through the inspection glass and saw him standing in the middle of the cell in a wild attitude, threatening violence and saying that anyone who dared to open the door would "get it." Those were the words as reported to me.

A disturbance of that kind has to be quelled. It cannot be allowed to continue in the interests of discipline or the interests of the other prisoners. The chief officer authorised two officers to take the prisoner out of the cell. A medical officer—it is true that he was not the medical officer of the prison but a locum tenens—authorised the placing of the prisoner in a loose canvas restraint-jacket.

Mr. Fienburgh

By telephone.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I have tried to ascertain whether it is known how the authorisation was given, but cannot say whether or not it was by telephone; I have no information on that score.

There was a struggle in the cell, but it will be seen from what I have said that that was to be expected in the circumstances, I have no doubt that it was quite a violent struggle. The officers removed the prisoner to the observation cell in the hospital and he remained in the loose canvas restraint-jacket from 2.30 p.m. to 6.45 p.m. The hon. Member, I think by a slip, referred to a strait jacket at one time. This was not a strait jacket but simply a loose jacket the effect of which is to prevent the prisoner from using his arms.

I think it is really quite inconceivable that the prisoner could have sustained any serious injury at all from wearing that strait jacket. He did certainly sustain two large bruises to his left thigh. There is no doubt of that. That would be natural in the circumstances in view of what took place in the cell, but he was in fact allowed out to take slow exercise as early as 2nd June, so that the bruises were not as bad as all that. The evidence I have shows that the bruises had in fact disappeared as soon as 3rd June. The prisoner was kept in hospital until 18th June.

I cannot at the moment say what was in the medical officer's mind, and what was the reason for keeping the prisoner there for that length of time. I can only suppose that he was exceedingly anxious that, in view of what had taken place, no complaint should be made that the man had been unduly rushed from hospital. The hon. Member may be aware that on occasion I have had to stand at this Box and answer exactly the reverse of the charge he has made, namely that the prison authorities are harsh in taking a man out of hospital too quickly. The prisoner was again punished, not for the resistance he put up, but for his misbehavioúr in the cell, the noise and the banging and the rest of it.

Mr. Fienburgh

My information, from the hon. Gentleman's Department, says that the prisoner was not put on a report for anything to do with a second offence, but the hon. Gentleman now says that he was punished for some second offence.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I appreciate that. I know that reference to which the hon. Member is referring and I think there has been some misunderstanding.

I want to make it quite clear that the prisoner was not punished for resisting what was done to him when he was taken out of his cell, but he was, of course, punished for the disturbance which he made in his cell when he was there by himself. For that, he received 14 days no association, no earnings, no canteen and no smoking, 7 days No. 2 diet, 28 days reduction in grade and 7 days loss of remission. That was, of course, a more serious punishment, but for a much more serious offence.

The prisoner's wife visited her husband on 2nd June. That is at variance, I think, with what the hon. Member has been told. Some time after that, she complained to the hon. Member—I am not certain when she made the complaint—that her husband had been "knocked about." It may well be that that would be an appropriate expression; it depends from which side one is considering the story. The hon. Member wrote to my hon. and gallant Friend the Home Secretary, whereupon a thorough investigation was made.

The prisoner himself wrote to the hon. Member in, I think, October. 1952, and he made a number of further complaints. All of them have been investigated and I should like to deal with them, as they answer a number of specific points made by the hon. Member. In the first place, the prisoner complained that he was not allowed to wash his chamber pot. That is really the opposite of what the hon. Member said this evening.

Mr. Fienburgh

The hon. Gentleman must not misunderstand me; perhaps I was not sufficiently clear. The prisoner was on the top corridor of Pentonville Prison and was one of the last in the queue. It was because the prison officer, against whom he may or may not have had the dislike, ordered him to take his chamber pot back into the cell, swill it out and wash it, that the first incident arose in which the obscene language and the insolence occurred.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I am sorry that I misunderstood the hon. Member. I am told that the allegation that the prisoner was not allowed to wash the chamber pot is not true.

The second complaint is that while undergoing restraint, the prisoner kept on demanding to see the Governor and that these requests were refused. Of course, the Governor had personally dealt with the report when the prisoner came before him between 10 and 11 o'clock that morning. The Deputy Governor visited the prisoner in the hospital cell at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, when he made no complaint beyond inquiring why he was wearing the loose jacket.

Then the prisoner says that he asked the deputy chief officer if he could see the medical officer but that nobody came. In fact, the deputy chief officer denies that the prisoner made any such request. The prisoner complained that he did not receive appropriate medical treatment. I think that that was a quite general complaint and related not to this specific occasion, but at all events it is quite clear from the medical officer's report, which I have seen, that the position is quite the contrary, and that the prisoner did receive medical treatment on this and on many other occasions.

The prisoner asked why a certain prison officer had been moved from the prison; and apparently tried to make some sort of capital out of that fact. The truth is that that was quite unconnected with the incident, and the prisoner was properly told that he was not entitled to know why particular officers were moved. The prisoner then complained that—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at sixteen minutes past One o'clock.