07:17, May 16 97 0 theguardian.com

2019-05-16 07:17:05
UK prisons are a disgrace. No wonder a Dutch court has refused to extradite

The prisons are “inhumane and degrading”, in the words of a court in Amsterdam, as it refused an extradition request. The judges were referring not to a Russian penal colony, but to HMP Liverpool halting the extradition of a fugitive wanted in the UK on drug-smuggling charges. The cause of this damning judgment is the appalling conditions in prisons such as Walton (Liverpool), Bedford and Birmingham.

The Daily Mail may have been outraged by the judgment, but it didn’t surprise me. I have been arguing similar extradition cases regarding prison conditions in other countries – and often winning – in the UK courts for years. It was only a matter of time before European countries looked at our Dickensian prison system and asked the same difficult questions.

It was the stinging criticism of HMP Liverpool by the chief inspector of prisons that pushed the Dutch court to refuse extradition. It was the worst prison they had inspected – filthy, squalid and with little control over the violence that ruled it. The situation is so serious that the justice committee has discussed the issue in parliament. There is a list of matters that need to be resolved but little progress has been made; violence persists and guards have threatened to strike.

On top of this, prison overcrowding is becoming a real problem in the UK: we incarcerate more people as a proportion than any other western European state. This wrecking of the prison service is thanks to the former justice secretary, Chris Grayling. It was a deliberate and ideological attack on human rights by a man hellbent on crushing public service. It is the poison that he spread that now permeates the system.

I talk to prison officers at all levels, from wing staff to governors. They are, in my experience, extremely hard-working and dedicated. What has always struck me is the humanity with which they deal with inmates in their care, however serious the offending. As much as possible is done for prisoners within the bounds of chronic under-investment. This has now come back to haunt the government, as EU courts begin to ask questions that the UK cannot answer. Under-staffing does not begin to describe it.

It is not just British prisons that are suffering. Throughout the EU, economic downturn means that the first funding to be axed is prisons and justice. Two prisons in Greece were recently so dangerous that the staff were afraid to enter and inmates often have to sleep on the floor. In Romania, prisons are so overcrowded that inmates have to sleep in shifts. Beyond Europe, prisons descend from “inhumane” to terrifying. In Ukraine, prisons of the old Soviet style are overcrowded and staffed by guards who often torture, threaten and sexually abuse inmates. In other countries, such as India, there is often little access to potable water, and torture is endemic.

When I first began challenging Romanian prison condition cases, it was clear that inmates often did not have a bed; or if they did, they had no space to get off it. Locked in a cell for 23 hours a day, unable to exercise, using a hole in the corner of the cell as a toilet, conditions were horrific.

Promises were made that conditions would improve, and assurances were provided that the human rights of those extradited would be respected. Our courts believed them, and the cases were lost. It rapidly transpired that the truth about the conditions was not being told. Clients contacted me to say that, in spite of the assurances, they were in appalling conditions. The UK courts began to refuse extradition in certain cases, but in general we have continued to extradite to countries that have very poor conditions, even where promises are broken.

So what of Liverpool, Birmingham and Bedford jails? The UK government has protested to the Dutch court that the poor conditions are not accepted as a reason to halt the extradition. The Dutch court has now delayed the case while the UK provides further evidence. If the UK does provide clear assurances that conditions are not “inhumane and degrading”, then the Dutch court is likely to accede to the request for extradition. No matter the outcome, the UK prison system will now come under much greater international scrutiny and we may yet see extradition refused on the basis of our prison conditions. In his first few days at the helm, the new prisons minister, Robert Buckland QC, has a difficult job on his hands.

Ben Keith is a barrister specialising in extradition, immigration, serious fraud, human rights and public law at 5 St Andrew’s Hill

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