Last October, 11 inmates in HMP High Down, a category B prison in Surrey, launched a protest about their conditions. Initially they refused to return to their cells, then they barricaded themselves into one of them.
When told to stop, they responded: "Fuck off, we want our association, we are not going behind our doors."
Over the next seven hours the authorities tried to coax them out. The prisoners slipped a note under the door saying: "The reason for these capers is we are not getting enough food, exercise, showers or gym and we want to see the governor lively." It added: "[We're] not getting any association and [we're] banged up like kippers".
A little later – it seems they were just having fun at this point – they said they would leave the cell if they were given mackerel and dumplings. But in general their complaints were about a deterioration in the prison regime and the dismissal of complaints by management.
A senior officer tried to speak to the men. They replied: "We don't want to speak to the monkey, we want to speak to the organ grinder."
After a few hours a Tornado unit – the officers sent in to break up riots and protests at prisons and detention centres – were brought in and that was the end of that.
Riot police are often sent in to prisons to restore order during riots or protests
Usually these types of protests are treated as internal disciplinary procedures. Serious ones usually see an independent adjudicator come in who can add up to 28 days to prisoners' sentences. But here, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) did something unusual. It charged the 11 men with mutiny.
This very serious charge carries a maximum of ten years imprisonment on top of whatever sentence the inmate is already serving. It requires that prosecutors demonstrate prisoners engaged "in conduct which is intended to further a common purpose of overthrowing lawful authority in that prison".
It's rarely used. As the vital prison blogger Alex Cavendish points out, the CPS' own guidance says: "In many circumstances, confirmation of disciplinary proceedings will make a prosecution for prison mutiny, or other substantive offences, unnecessary".
There is a suspicion among observers that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) put pressure on the CPS to take the case to court in order to set an example to other prisoners considering protest as a way of expressing their anger at the prison crisis. There is no evidence for this, except for the peculiarity of the case and the rarity of the decision to bring charges in court.
As one defendant's lawyer said: "Despite their actions being a protest against conditions at the prison, the police and CPS chose to charge our client and his co-defendants with prison mutiny, a very serious charge leading to additional custodial time if convicted."
Chris Grayling's prison regime was effectively put on trial
The financial cost was significant. All 11 men needed legal representation. The trial ran for three weeks and prosecution costs included required funding for police and the CPS. The total bill will be in the hundreds of thousands.
Politically the cost was more severe. The case became a public forum for the reality of the prison crisis to be laid bare.
Censorship of prisoners and former prisoners prevents many of the details of the deterioration in the prison estate from becoming public. But now it was all being discussed in open court, not least by the governor himself. The mainstream press ignored the story, but the local paper, the Sutton Guardian, provided excellent coverage. Rather usefully, it is also Chris Grayling''s local paper.
High Downs had been going through the same process as many other prisons across the country. Grayling has encouraged the courts to send more and more people to jail but he continued with cuts to the funding for the service, resulting in dangerously low staffing levels. This makes it impossible for guards to maintain the personal relations with prisoners which order relies on. It also means prisoners spend all day locked up in their cells, without enough guards to take them to the library, the gym, or even the showers. It has been very well documented by the chief inspector of prisons, independent monitoring boards, a handful of concerned journalists and penal reform groups, but Grayling refuses to accept it is a problem.
Earlier this year, an independent monitoring board report found services at the prison had been "pared to the bone and beyond", prompting safety fears, keeping inmates locked up in their cells and making rehabilitation all but impossible.
By the time prison governor Ian Bickers, the "organ grinder" inmates had originally wanted to talk to, took to the stand, those reports were confirmed. According to media reports and the account of lawyers, he outlined the pressures prisons faced because of a Whitehall regime which enforces austerity.
"Over the course of the three-week trial, there were many revelations about the horrific regime in HMP High Down, and the governor of the prison even admitted that they had 'got it wrong'," the barrister said.
The jury unanimously acquitted the 11 men.
Grayling refuses to accept independent reports about the deterioration of standards in jails
One of the defence barristers, Andrew Jefferies, observed: "By its verdicts, the jury must have accepted that the defendants may have been legitimately protesting rather than intending to overthrow the prison authority."
Another barrister said: "This not guilty verdict was not only a victory for the defendants but a resounding demonstration of the danger and damage caused by the cuts to the safe and humane running of the prison service."
Remarkably, former prison minister and local MP Crispin Blunt came to the same conclusion. He launched a blistering broadside against Grayling, a fellow Tory MP, in the pages of his local paper. He said:
"In the light of the evidence from the governor the acquittal is unsurprising.
"This is reinforced by the reports of the independent monitoring board. They reflect the consequences of prison policy under the current justice secretary.
"I am surprised this prosecution was brought. The protest did not appear to cross the threshold of 'mutiny', which is an extremely serious offence.
"The failure to secure a conviction will make 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.
"Chris Grayling decided, at the behest of the Prison Officers Association and public sector prison service management to find… savings from stopping the competition programme and… making staff cuts in the public sector prisons.
"At the same time his message to the courts has been unambiguously robust and this has seen a rise in the number of offenders being sent to prison. This has exacerbated the problem."
We don't know why the CPS decided to bring the charges. And we obviously don't know why the jury came to the conclusion that it did. But it is hard to resist the idea that this was an attempted clampdown on prison protests over deteriorating standards.
If so, it could not have gone more wrong.
A Prison Service spokesperson said:
"Disruptive behaviour has no place in prison and we take swift and robust action against anyone who attempts any kind of disorder. All serious incidents are referred to the police for prosecution. We will closely consider next steps after the verdict."