What happens if you're imprisoned for a crime you didn't commit?

Banged up: But what happens if you maintain your innocence?
Banged up: But what happens if you maintain your innocence?
Ian Dunt By

It's the subject of countless films and novels, from the Count of Monte Cristo to the Shawshank Redemption.

You find yourself accused of a crime you didn't commit. The court case goes against you. You're sent to prison.

In the movies, you will fight off the gangs who take a dislike to you, escape through a tunnel and clear your name. In the real world you will either admit to your crime or - if you keep on maintaining your innocence - you will be subject to prolonged psychological torture.

You will be isolated, humiliated and subject to arbitrary punishments, sometimes including starvation, by guards. If you keep on maintaining your innocence, this process will last indefinitely.

This process is hidden behind an opaque prison system and misleading statements from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

Inmates are barred from talking to journalists without the authorisation of the governor - an authorisation which is rarely granted and arrives a month later if it is. If you're on parole or licence there's a gagging clause preventing you bringing the justice system into 'disrepute'. This is code for criticising the prison, the governor, the guards or the justice secretary.

But former prisoners will talk on condition of anonymity and the stories they have to tell speak volumes about the bleak reality of Grayling's "right-wing solutions" to reoffending.

This is what happens if you're imprisoned for a crime you didn't commit.

Once you lose your trial, you will go into prison on something called 'entry level'.

It's not pleasant –you're forced to wear prison clothes and are denied many personal belongings - but if you meet 'behavioural expectations', you'll be shifted up to 'standard level' after two weeks. Three months after that you can be moved to 'enhanced', where you have access to luxury items like musical instruments, a Playstation 2 or a DVD player.

In truth, 'enhanced level' is a thing of the past. It used to be a carrot to offer prisoners if they were well-behaved, took part in rehabilitation programmes and undertook 'purposeful activities' like work. Now you need to somehow 'contribute to the life of the prison'. The only way to do this, really, is to become a mentor, but there aren't many places for that. So as people on enhanced statuses come up for their yearly review, they will drop off it into standard level.

This type of cynicism is typical of Grayling's prison regime. You don't actual cancel enhanced status. You just make impossible to achieve.

None of this is announced. You would never know it by reading what the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) puts into the public domain. You have to talk with prisoners themselves, which is almost impossible.

Beneath these three categories there is something called 'basic level'.

Basic is brutal. Everything is denied to you except those rights guaranteed by law: a minimum of visits and a minimum of letters. You lose your clothes and personal possessions. You lose your TV and other forms of entertainment. You are usually confined to your cell, usually alone, for up to 23 hours a day.

You are at the mercy of wing officers. If they decide you need extra punishments - like being denied showers, or phone calls, or haircuts, or visits to the prison library - then that's what happens.

"Believe me," one former prisoner told me, "life on basic level is designed to be humiliating and a form of psychological punishment."

A recent report by the prisons inspectorate found one wing officer at HMP Bristol was denying a basic regime prisoner food. He was literally starving him. There are anecdotal stories of several similar cases.

According to the prisons and probation ombudsman, eight per cent of suicides in prison investigated by his office between 2007 and 2012 were of prisoners on the basic regime. That is considerably higher than the national average percentage of prisoners on the basic regime, which at the time stood on just two per cent.

"The effect of the move to basic regime had a significantly negative impact on their mental wellbeing," he wrote.

"Some prisoners exhibited extreme or strange behaviour and others threatened to self-harm."

Even the process of being put on basic is humiliating. Two officers march the prisoner to his cell. He is stripped naked and given old prison clothes to wear, which have been worn by dozens before him, including usually stained underwear. These items will rarely fit and are typically in a state of disrepair. Virtually all personal possessions are removed from the cell, along with the television.

That is what 'basic level' consists of: solitary confinement, dehumanisation, deprivation of any support or sympathetic human contact and, in the worse-case scenario, actual slow starvation. It is supposed to be one of the last resorts in prison discipline.

And so it used to be. But under Grayling's administration, it is becoming something much more than that. It is becoming the default position of anyone who does not conform to the new regime.

First, he got rid of the hearings. Prisoners who were about to drop down a status level used to have the opportunity to make representations to the prison authorities. Now it is the decision of a single senior prison officer.

The MoJ announced this change with the misleading line: "Where operationally possible, prisoners must be able to make prior representations." Anyone with experience of dealing with British officialdom will know what "where operationally possible" means. It means prior representation is a thing of the past.

There is no limit to how long you are put on basic. It can be forever.

Grayling's system is not about providing incentives. It's the opposite. It's about providing disincentives. He's removed the top category for good behaviour and is normalising the bottom category. This is bullying and intimidation as penal policy.

For most prisoners, this is bad enough. But for those who maintain their innocence, it goes one step further. It becomes a form of psychological torture.

You, as a new prisoner, will want to avoid basic level. But you have a problem. In order to stay off basic you need to take part in rehabilitation programmes. And those programmes demand that you admit your guilt.

This is understandable. They are psychological treatment courses. They start with a one-to-one interview in which a course manager asks what your offence was, why you did it and whether you have a history of it. If you maintain your innocence, it doesn't give them anything to work with.

The old solution to this problem was to say that prisoners who did not admit their guilt were unable to attain enhanced level but could progress up to that point. That was a decent compromise.

Last November, Grayling brought in new rules. Among these new rules was the ban on parcels which triggered the prison book ban campaign. But there were plenty of other mean-spirited policies in there too.

One of these policies is that anyone maintaining their innocence without an ongoing court of appeal case reference is forced on to basic level - with no chance of ever getting off it unless they admit their guilt.

The MoJ claims otherwise, of course.

It says:

"In determining IEP [incentives and earned privileges] levels, the fact that someone is in denial of their offence should not automatically prevent them from progressing through the privilege levels, including to enhanced level."

But three independent sources - all of them knowledgeable about the prison system - have confirmed this is not the reality inside prisons. And other sections of the rules flatly contradict what is written above.

Those who deny their guilt are put on basic.

Look again at the wording of the statement from the MoJ. Sure, denial of offence does not prevent you progressing through the privilege levels. But refusing to take part in the rehabilitation programme does. And the programme depends on you not denying the offence.

Again - this is the type of contorted logic you must follow if you are to make head or tail of MoJ documents.

So you will now have a decision. Do you confess to a crime you did not commit and get better standards? Or do you stick to your principles?

"No-one in their right mind maintains innocence except if they are," a former prisoner tells me.

"There's no advantage at all. You get the shitty end of every stick. Lots of people cave in after years of pressure."

Prisoners on basic level must be clearly told at regular intervals the steps they can take to get off basic. But this is a sick joke for those maintaining innocence. The one thing they have to do to get out of the torture which has been imposed on them is the one thing which would truly break their spirit.

Grayling wants to apply "right-wing solutions" to the prison estate. We don't know the price of his experiment yet. But we are starting to get some idea.


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