Inside (HMP) Isis

Disclaimer: I visited HMP Isis lately and these are my findings. I have asked permission to publish this and it was granted.

HMP Isis is a relatively new Category C male prison opened in 2010 in Woolwich. Formerly a Young Offenders Institute it now takes prisoners between the ages of 18 and 40, with this set to increase slowly over the following years as the increased age has helped to reduce the number of gangs in situ from approximately 80 to approximately 40. Care is taken to keep gang members apart and Trident play an active role in getting prisoners to shun gangs altogether.

There are still provisions for young offenders; prisoners do not join the ‘adult’ populous until they are 21 years and an amount of days old. Until then they are kept separately.

The Prison has two ‘houses’ Thames and Meridian. One houses the younger offenders, and the other everyone else. Despite it being a newer prison, in style it is similar to Pentonville, with the high hexagonal ceilings and ‘spurs’ coming off making up cell block wings. There is a capacity of around 600 inmates.

The Prison has basic medical facilities but no on-site hospital. For medical treatment prisoners go elsewhere.

HMP Isis only takes sentenced prisoners as it is not a remand or ‘holding’ prison. Prisoners must have an under ten year sentence, but most likely they are there for under six years. Technically, someone can end up in Isis for any offence, as they may serve the tail end of their sentence there for a serious crime or be sent there for less serious offences. Although sex offenders can be sent to this prison, it is not common because they do not run an SOP programme.

As the prison is on the grounds of HMP Belmarsh and Woolwich Crown Court it is more secure than perhaps the average Category C Prison, and has had no escapes and no instances of drone use to drop off prohibited items to inmates.

As with any prison there is an underground currency of drug smuggling and dealing. Every care is taken to search incoming prisoners. Facilities include drug searches, testing, dogs, and a special chair that can detect electrical devices concealed within the person. As most prisoners have come from holding prisons, it is also hoped they were searched thoroughly before being transported. Staff are also searched to make sure that the risk of ‘bent prison officers’ is minimal. The popularity of ‘spice’ has presented problems in that it is not picked up by traditional drug testing methods. Drug dogs can now smell spice but previously it was being sent in on books and envelopes in spray form. The prisoner could then lick, or run a lighter along and sniff the adhesive on the envelope or book pages. HMP Isis is still a smoking prison, but this is likely to change.

The Prison operates with a ratio of 24 prisoners to one member of staff. This is lower than prisons such as Wandsworth, ideally they would like to have more staff. This is not allowed due to prison reforms and cutbacks as it cannot be ‘justified’ enough to secure the extra funding. The prisoners and staff have a good and respectful relationship.

Because Isis is a ‘working prison’ there is a high focus on rehabilitation and reform of prisoners, who can book classes and library visits through the biometric machines in the cell wings. Being a ‘working prison’, inmates have to do courses in Maths and English if they do not already hold qualifications. These are delivered in small classroom-style lessons. These basic skills can be delivered alongside a skill such as woodwork or catering.

Fred Sirieix of First Dates fame comes in and trains a select few inmates to run a silver-service pop up restaurant for the prison staff. Other catering companies do similar and may even promise inmates jobs when they are released.

The Prison offers careers fairs, allowing inmates to seek guidance about options to take on their release. This also acts as a motivator to learn more, behave, and get out as quick as possible. Timpsons, the high street store, has a fantastic record of offering jobs to ex convicts and guarantees them an interview upon release if they are up to the required threshold.

Prisoners can also work whilst inside, earning £9 a week for various catering and cleaning jobs. There are two ‘shifts’ of workers, one 9am until lunch time, and the other after lunch time until 4pm. They are free to spend their money via their biometrics machine on cigarettes, toiletries, and phone credit. Interestingly, a packet of cigarettes via the biometric ordering system is £12, so there can sometimes be debts owed to other prisoners because of a trade in this.

There is also some mild discontent that with wages so low, only prisoners whose families send them in money through their prison account, can afford luxuries such as smoking.

As to be expected visits are very important to prisoners, and are used as leverage for poor behaviour. At Isis there are three categories of prisoner: basic (gets one visit per month), normal (gets three visits per month) and enhanced (gets four visits per month). Each visit allows a maximum of three adults and three children at a time. There are facilities for child visitors to make the visit pleasant for them, as it is important for the inmate and the child to share happy memories and strengthen their bond, with the hope this will make the inmate less likely to reoffend.

There are some instances of criminal damage within the prison and one cell in the segregation wing has been out of action for over six months. The police are not very interested in this damage. Most things are dealt with inside the prison unless someone is severely hurt in which case it will go to court. Until recently spitting was not an offence, but now inmates who spit at prison officers may find themselves in court charged with assault.


Online Guilty Pleas are scrapped

The Prison and Courts Bill has been scrapped after a public committee vote as Parliament comes to the end of its session and switches focus to pushing more urgent legislation through prior to the newly-called General Election.

This bill was a government plan allowing those accused of minor criminal offences to be able to plead guilty and pay fines, compensation, and associated legal costs online. This was to be optional, with the accused able to go to court still if they so decided. This would have only been used in simple prosecutions with a pre-determined fine, such as rail fair evasion or the non-payment of a parking ticket.

This pilot was to be extended to certain ‘clear cut’ driving offences if successful which, it was thought, would free up court time and resources to deal with more serious matters.

The bill was seen favourably by most, but had some opposition in that it ‘interfered with the rule of law’ and did not allow those accused a fair chance of being heard, despite the fact that a guilty plea even in person would allow very little chance to be heard anyway in such simple process-driven proceedings.


Finn’s Law- an interview with PC Dave Wardell.

Finn’s Law is a petition for legal change regarding the status of working animals, in particular service animals injured in the line of duty. Currently the legal position is that if a service animal is attacked, the attacker is charged under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 for effectively damaging the ‘property’ of the police or fire brigade, with a penalty no more severe than that of kicking in a door or smashing a window. This unique petition aims to bring the status of emergency service animals in line with the French position of a service animal being a sentient being, which is also mirrored in some American states. There seems to be real scope for change as interestingly, under current law attacking a guide dog presents a high penalty, as it is seen as representing ‘an extension of the person whom they are assisting’.

In the early hours of the fifth of October 2016 PC Dave Wardell (@DaveWardell on Twitter) was out on duty with his 8-year-old police dog, Finn.  Whilst attending a botched robbery PC Wardell was stabbed in the hand, and in trying to save his handler Finn endured life-threatening stab wounds to the head and chest requiring urgent veterinary care.  The incident and Finn’s recovery were blogged about firsthand at The case surrounding this is currently ongoing with a junior defendant, and as such some updates are sensitive and cannot be provided at this time.

A petition was set up in the days following the incident, aiming to ensure that police animals ‘be given protection that reflects their status if assaulted in the line of duty’. To date it has amassed a whopping 127,502 signatures, and was debated in Parliament in November last year.

PC Wardell kindly took some time out of his busy schedule to let me interview him about Finn’s Law and policing:

JSP: I note that the petition to give police dogs higher legal status has amassed 127,50 signatures, and was debated in parliament in November. What is next for the campaign?

DW: This now sits with the Government who are in the process of reviewing this. We have had one positive in that the Sentencing Council have for the first time recognised service animals in law and have made harm to them an aggravating factor.

JSP: Does the use of a police dog or horse intimidate people, and thus make them get more violent in retaliation?

DW: Police animals have a huge deterrent factor. If that means that during the course of a police dogs career that many thousands of people go home safely or many millions of pounds of property and assets are protected, surely that’s a good thing? Their presence tends to lower violence between people and towards Police officers.

JSP: Do you feel that normal pet animals should also receive higher legal status?

DW: As they do in France where they have been classed as beings for some time? Why not? We are said to be a nation of animal lovers. What’s not to like about that?

JSP: Do you feel the same way emotionally about Finn as you would a pet dog?

DW: Yep. Although the bond between my pet and me and between Finn and me where he has saved my life and I his is totally different. We are a double act. My pet doesn’t see me like that.

JSP: Do police dogs live in the family home like any other pet and enjoy typical family life?

DW: That usually depends on local rules. They have a kennel in the garden of the handler.

JSP: How much deployment does the average police dog get a week, and to what events?

DW: We cover all normal aspects of day to day policing. We are also the most effective search team police currently have and have had for well over 100 years. We exploit a dog’s 750,000 years of evolution through positive training to allow us to effectively search huge areas for suspects and missing persons – usually to great success. Finn and I would on average attend 10 jobs per shift. That can be reduced if we have to spend several hours on one search.

JSP: Had Finn ever been attacked prior to his stabbing?

DW: Most police dogs will be kicked or punched during their career. Finn is no different.

JSP: Are police dogs often injured in the line of duty?

DW: It’s not often they are as seriously injured as Finn.  Finn isn’t the first dog in recent years to have been stabbed in this country. During the riots a Police Dog and his handler were attacked with a brick. Dogs have been shot, kicked, and punched. A dog recently received internal bruising from an attack in the UK.

JSP: Does PD Finn enjoy working?

DW: Finn loves nothing more than coming to work with me.

JSP: What can a police dog do that an officer cannot?

DW: Dogs see the world through scent. Finn has tracked the route of an offender four hours after the offence, found all his discarded loot and taken us to his hideout where we arrested him. No modern technology or robot can currently do that. They also never complain about work. They are  always happy to be working and don’t bring their troubles to work with them.

JSP: Would you say attacks on police dogs and horses are rising?

DW: As [the attacks] have never been officially recorded there is no way of knowing for sure. But I’d say they are.

JSP: Are police dogs helpful on the front line to prevent further terror attacks?

DW: If you ask a police officer on the street what they would like to see more of between armed police, helicopters, Senior Officers or dogs, the answer will always be dogs! As for wether they help in the fight against terror, they already are and already do! In fact if budgets weren’t so tight they’d be doing more.

JSP: Do you support the idea of all police officers being issued with a body-worn camera?

DW: I wear one every day. I see no reason why I would not wear one as I have nothing to hide. Once faced with the evidence most complaints against police are dropped by the complainant once they are shown their behaviour.

Finn now,  and Finn’s injuries. Photo credit @DaveWardell

It remains to be said that PD Finn did an excellent job, hanging on despite his severe injuries until the attacker could be apprehended. He has since returned to operational duty and even apprehended a suspect on his first day back at work. If you are interested in signing the petition, please find it here.

An attack on London, but not humanity.

Operation Cotton, what does it really mean for the Criminal Bar?

Legal Aid cuts protest, photo courtesy of the BBC

DISCLAIMER: This is essentially old news now, though the principle that Legal Aid should not be cut and is a highly important feature of our justice system remains. I wrote this for More Law earlier in the year, so I am posting it here to my personal blog.

Case: R v Scott Crawley and Others (unreported).

The legal aid row has been making headlines recently, with barristers and solicitors protesting in the streets of London, and at courts all over the country. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition had proposed cuts an incredible £220 million pound cut to the £2.2 billion pound legal aid budget; further restricting both who and what type of cases are eligible for legal aid (legal aid has almost ceased to exist in family proceedings). This has created a justice gap.

The Facts

Operation Cotton was an investigation into an alleged fraud. Due to its size and complexity the Legal Aid Authority designated the subsequent trial as a Very High Costs Case (VHCC). Due to a 30% cut in fees paid to barristers who conduct such cases, which has resulted in a decline in those advocates willing to undertake such work, the solicitors defending the accused were unable to find suitably qualified barristers to conduct the case. The Ministry of Justice, through its creation of the Public Defender Service (PDS), had attempted to prevent such an occurrence. The idea was that the PDS could field advocates to undertake such cases. But hardly any barristers joined. As a consequence of these cuts and the inability of the PDS to provide enough advocates of the requisite standard it became clear that the instant case was not going to be trial ready and would have to be adjourned.

The defendants argued that due to the impasse reached over the question of barrister’s fees and the lack of advocates recruited by the PDS the case should be stayed as an abuse of process rather than adjourned. The defendants were represented (for the purpose of this argument) by Alexander Cameron QC (the Prime Minister’s older brother). His Honour Judge Leonard QC granted a stay following Mr Cameron QC’s submission that “it would be unfair to try the defendants if they wished to be represented, and, through no fault of their own, they were not”.

HHJ Leonard QC also noted that the pool of PDS advocates, who it was suggested by some could handle the case, were grossly inadequate and to let them take the case would be manifestly unfair. He said: “I am compelled to conclude that, to allow the State an adjournment to put right its failure to provide the necessary resources to permit a fair trial to take place now amounts to a violation of the process of this court… Even if I am wrong about that, I further find that there is no realistic prospect that sufficient advocates would be available for this case to be tried in January 2015, from any of the sources available to the defence, including the PDS. Whatever reason is put forward by the party applying, the court does not ordinarily grant adjournments on a speculative basis.”

The Court of Appeal

The Financial Conduct Authority appealed His Honour Judge Leonard QC’s ruling to the Court of Appeal. Following submissions the stay was lifted. The judgment handed down on the 21st of May by the President of the Queen’s Bench Division Sir Brian Leveson (sitting with Treacy and Davis LJJ) stated that the time for a stay of proceedings had not yet come. Advocates employed by the Public Defender Service were indeed available, and (in a reactionary measure during the appeal) the Ministry of Justice was actively trying to recruit more PDS adovactes.

The judgment also pointed out that Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling “undeniably” was responsible to sort out the defendant’s representation of the defendants. Sir Brian Leveson, summing up, said “on our analysis, there was a sufficient prospect of a sufficient number of PDS advocates who were then available who would enable a trial to proceed in January 2015. That pool included a sufficient number of advocates of the rank of QC”.

The Political and Legal Significance

This case has shifted responsibility directly to the Ministry of Justice to get their house in order. Even when this case does go to trial, the wider problems within the justice system will remain unsolved. There is a very real and apparent threat to the criminal bar, and to those who appear before the courts.

A long term deal needs to be made between barristers and the government. As Leveson LJ pointed out in his judgment, “it is of fundamental importance that the Ministry of Justice, led by the Lord Chancellor, and the professions continue to try to resolve the impasse that presently stands in the way of the delivery of justice in the most complex cases… The maintenance of a criminal justice system of which we can be proud depends on a sensible resolution.”

The proposed £220 million pound legal aid cuts, and the 30% fee reduction for barristers in VHCCs is something that desperately needs to be solved, not only in the interests of justice, but also to encourage talented young advocates to the Criminal Bar. Unless the Chancellor wants more complex cases such as this to be held up, progress will have to be made, or the most complex cases could go unrepresented, or represented by underqualified advocates.