The export of live animals is better regulated than the transport of human beings between prisons and courts.
The abusive conditions in which live farm animals are transported has rightly provoked immense outrage. But the inhuman conditions in which prisoners are transported around the country merits no outcry at all. Why the double standards?
Prisoners, many of them on remand, who later will be found innocent of any crime, are packed into claustrophobic sweatbox prison vans. Victims describe the experience as dehumanising. Some say they felt like sheep in slaughterhouse pens or like slaves on the Atlantic crossing.
These prison transit vehicles are run by private companies like Serco and GSL. They operate under contract on behalf of the Prison Service.
Inside many of these Home Office-approved human cattle trucks, each prisoner is locked in a tiny coffin-like cubicle measuring about 34in by 24in, with a 10in square clear plastic window. The cubicles have a height of around five feet, which means that most detainees are unable to stand up. They have to remain seated on a small hard metal seat with no seatbelts. Every time the prison van swerves and brakes, they get shaken around. There is no protection from serious injury or death in the event of a traffic accident.
Many prisoners spend long hours in these vans as they are transported, sometimes hundreds of miles, between courts and prisons. They usually get no fresh air or exercise, no food or water and no toilet facilities. They are expected to piss and shit in their cubicles.
No one expects five-star prison vans, but a minimum standard of basic decency – like toilet facilities, water and food on long journeys – seems a reasonable expectation of a civilised society.
Even children and teenagers have been subjected to these depraved Victorian asylum-like conditions. Baroness Anelay of St Johns expressed to the House of Lords “significant concerns that we have about the conditions and treatment of children during transportation from both court to custody and between establishments. The conditions in which the children are transported are often very poor. Young people report spending lengthy periods in what are only, after all, sweatboxes, without access to food and water or regular toilet breaks.”
Following an inspection of Onley young offender institution last year, the report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, stated: “It is deplorable to find, as we did, that some young people were not only reduced to urinating in the escort vehicle, but also had to clean it out on arrival”.
Retired midwife and peace campaigner Olivia Agate told The Guardian how she spent five hours in a prison van: “During the journey, a woman shouted out that she was going to be sick but the staff ignored her … We could hear the poor girl retching but the van carried on. When we got to Durham, the smell was awful.”
I think we can all imagine the effect that transportation in these barbaric conditions has on people who are physically ill, traumatised, mentally unstable or claustrophobic – especially the many thousands of people who are innocent victims of wrongful arrests or convictions.
Moreover, even if the people in transit are guilty of crimes, this is no excuse for the Home Office and Prison Service, in our name, to stoop to the level of criminals and degrade their fellow human beings in this way.
Peter E Simon, a black activist, was arrested following a protest in support families and young people last month. He has firsthand experience of how Serco treats prisoners in transit. This is part of his account of what he alleges happened to him:
“The attendant gestured toward the opening of the chamber and mumbled, ‘crouch in’ while directing me to step upwards into the little booth … (He) began battering his shoulder hard against the door of my cubicle from the outside, compressing me further within, ramming again … I was now beginning to feel like a black-skinned slave tight-packed (as of old, albeit in a different variation of the hell) out of some kind of sadistic lust for human degradation and profit … My mouth was drying up even more and a slow panic was beginning to ensue. My chest was getting tighter … my heart rate had risen to just over 95 bpm and getting to 100 and I was floundering … the sickness churned again in my stomach. I suffered a cramp attack in the left leg. But I could not in any way stretch to alleviate the agony, and I found myself groaning out in despair. I called out to the attendant to let him know I was ill. He lifted his head but remained seated. The lack of ventilation (too). I was feeling so light-headed, tight-packed and boxed. I gasped, lost consciousness.”
These abuses are symptomatic of the wider abuses of the prison service, which Juliet Lyon, Director the Prison Reform Trust, discussed when I interviewed her for my Talking With Tatchell online TV series. You can watch the interview here.
The fact that abuses are endemic in the whole prison system is no excuse to ignore, downplay or accept the abuses in the transportation system.
The humiliation and degradation of the prison van system happens with the knowledge of the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith MP and the Director of the Prison Service, Phil Wheatley. They are aware of the squalid conditions, yet they continue to licence companies like Serco and GSL which perpetrate this abuse.
These state-sanctioned human rights abuses are a criminal enterprise. The Home Secretary, Director of Prison Service and the heads of GSL and Serco should, in my opinion, be prosecuted and put behind bars.
It is this kind of government-authorised inhumanity that has driven me and thousands of other people to leave the Labour Party we once loved and served. It is now a party that all too often panders to the lynch mob mentality and authorises the brutalisation of other human beings in order to grab a few more tainted law and order votes. Shame on Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith. New Labour. New abuses.