As an historic 51 climate activists are sent to prison on one day, while climate change escalates rapidly across the globe, is Britain’s broken criminal justice system fit to handle its current burden, let alone the threats to the rule of law to come?
The escalating climate crisis
There’s never been a more important time to be a climate activist. Human-induced climate change is all around us and rapidly escalating, with countless examples of extreme temperatures smashing historic records, and unprecedented levels of fire, drought, storm and flood.
2022 was a record year for wildfires in southwestern Europe. Catastrophic drought displaced one million people in Somalia. More than one third of Pakistan is under water. Hurricane Ian has just ravaged Florida’s Gulf Coast. These impacts are occurring faster than scientists predicted and will only increase over time.
Government efforts fall far short
Yet governmental and commercial efforts have not even scratched the surface of the desperate need to reduce human CO2 emissions. Global energy-related CO2 emissions rose by 6% in 2021, to 36.3 billion tonnes, their highest ever level. Even the International Energy Agency, established to maintain the stability of the international oil supply, and clearly not a radical voice, is calling for an immediate ban on new oil, coal, and gas development.
Over 60% of the UK population want no new oil and gas, and believe that spending should be redirected into low-carbon power like wind and solar. Yet the current Conservative government under its new prime minister has ended the ban on shale gas and is expanding North Sea oil and gas licensing.
Climate change will undoubtedly come to challenge the resilience of social and legal systems worldwide, with increasing displacement of people due to rising sea levels, drought, and famine, and its concomitant threat to human security, rights, and life itself. How disastrous the situation becomes depends entirely on how quickly we can reduce our carbon emissions.
Just Stop Oil
Just Stop Oil is a coalition of groups working together to ensure that the government commits to ending all new licences and consents for the exploration, development, and production of fossil fuels in the UK. On 14 September, driven by the urgency of the current situation, 51 peaceful protesters sat in a private road outside Kingsbury Oil terminal, breaking an injunction which banned demonstrations outside the facility.
All the protesters were arrested and kept in a police cell overnight before being brought to court on the morning of Thursday 15September. After they refused to comply with court proceedings, they were all remanded to prison for at least a week.
A creaking criminal justice system
Many of the demonstrators had no previous contact with the police or criminal justice system before protesting. Their accounts of their experiences, and the state of the criminal justice system, gives a useful insight into the capacity of that system and the rule of law itself, to withstand the shocks likely to be given it by the climate crisis in the future.
All 51 protesters spent at least a week in various prisons; among them Pentonville, Bronzefield, Birmingham, Foston Hall and Hewell. Some protesters will remain in prison until the end of November – their offences were deemed to be more serious depending on how often they had broken the injunction before, how early they admitted the breach, and their cooperation, or otherwise, with the court. The longest sentence received was 154 days, for an entirely peaceful demonstration on a private road.
Accounts from inside the various jails were consistent, and consistently poor.
An understaffed prison system not fit for purpose
“The system is clearly massively under-resourced, and heavily rosewashed … lots of reassuring blurb in the avalanche of paperwork received on arrival which is clearly aspirational and far removed from reality”, wrote one protester from their cell.
The following difficulties were observed multiple times by different prisoners and their loved ones as they struggled to learn to deal with the system:
Contact rights, failed.
- On arrival at prison, new prisoners are supposed to be given a two-minute phone call, or sometimes a small amount of credit on an emergency phone PIN, so that they can make contact with the outside world. This is particularly important as once removed from court, the friends and family of the protester have no way of knowing which prison their loved one has been sent to until they call. In many instances these calls were not honoured, or there were problems getting hold of emergency or final PINs, leading to protesters being lost in the system for several days.
Understaffed, with broken infrastructure.
- Low staffing levels at various prisons means that problems sometimes take days to resolve. For example, it took over two days to get a completely blocked cell sink cleared; where prisoners were expected to do washing up and underwear washing, as well as wash their hands. On another occasion a faulty smoke alarm in the corridor of the remand wing malfunctioned from 10pm to 8am on two successive nights, causing a shrill alarm to sound for three minutes every 15 minutes on both nights.
- Things that break are generally not replaced. At Foston Hall, for example, many cells do not have bins (where all rubbish including sanitary towels needs to go) or shower curtains, so that shower water spills all over the floor of the cell.
- Low staffing levels also mean that exercise can be severely limited. It is commonplace for prisoners to be kept in their cells for 23 hours per day, and for the daily 40 minutes exercise walking round a concrete yard to be cancelled altogether.
- More staffing difficulties were observed when three protesters were freed by the judge after a court hearing on a Friday. Their pre-release checks were not carried out in a timely manner, and the protesters were not released until Monday evening, after 72 hours of illegal detention.
Dietary requirements, ignored.
- Religious and dietary requirements were not observed or honoured. One vegan protester is due for release this week after a month in jail without receiving the vegan diet supplementation to which they are legally entitled. Another vegan gluten intolerant prisoner lost half a stone in their week in prison.
Contact delayed and denied.
- Emails to and from prisoners are processed in different ways at different prisons. In most, delays are endemic and mail processed sporadically, as staffing allows, leading to days of delay in the process. At HMP Peterborough, there are two kiosks for 30 prisoners on the remand wing, where prisoners must queue to read their emails and then quickly answer them while others queue behind. They get no hard copy to enjoy during their 23 hours of daily ‘leisure’ in their cell.
- Records, prisoner credit, and permissions do not transfer at all from one prison to another, and prisoners may be sent back to a different prison each time they appear in court. This means that credit on their prison accounts has to be added again, lists of those who may phone or visit have to be recreated, and medical checks have to be recompleted.
- One protester was denied their medication for five days.
- Various private companies run different prisons, and they can all operate independently and differently.
Underfunded, understaffed and overstretched.
- No one expects prison to be a pleasant place to be, and as one protester expressed it: “I was not expecting a spa type experience.” But the deficiencies noted above, and many others that could be discussed here highlight, “the most disturbing thing, which is between what’s sold as the modern prison experience and the reality”.
- As one protester wrote, “I have no confidence in the prompt arrival or intervention of staff in an emergency situation”.
Public services creaking at the seams
Overall, the impression is of yet another public service creaking at the seams. Underfunded, understaffed and overstretched; ill prepared to face the climate change and social justice challenges to come. We are familiar with these issues in our NHS and our social care systems generally. We are less familiar with abuses to the rights of prisoners, as most of us don’t bump up against the penal system very often. And prisoners are vilified, so such abuses are ignored, or even encouraged by the system that is supposed to protect them.
The Kingsbury 51 testify unanimously to the total lack of response to complaints, to requests to see the visiting Ombudsman not acknowledged or facilitated, or comments by prison officers such as “well it’s prison, isn’t it”, or “complain next time you are in a 5-star hotel” to deflect or ignore reports of problems. Certainly, the current penal system feels no need to ever apologise for the human rights abuses that should not be occurring on its watch.
Yet the people being victimised here are some of the most vulnerable in society. The imprisoned Just Stop Oil protesters observe that, for example, reports of a high prevalence of mental health issues within our prisons are not exaggerated. These conditions are not recognised, diagnosed, or treated as such by the prison system. Their manifestations are instead managed as behavioural issues, leading to cruelties more suited to a 19th-century asylum, rather than the modern and enlightened prisons that are touted in their ‘welcome packs’.
Society deserves enlightened and democratic governmental and justice systems, which take seriously and are responsive to the justifiable concerns of its citizens. This is currently not occurring at any level, from the casual abuse of society’s most underprivileged to the wholesale destruction of the biosphere and the future of generations to come. Something needs to change, and needs to change soon. For neither our overstretched prison systems, nor our overstressed environment, can endure further pressure.