It was an honour to host Frances Crook, CEO of Howard League for Penal Reform at this years Annual Fiona Woolf lecture.
Frances spoke passionately about the need for reform in several areas of the prison system and earnestly announced that she felt the only way to improve the system was through the abolition of prisons altogether. This prompted some fierce debate between delegates later in the evening.
She left the assembled group feeling enraged, inspired and empowered to use their skills and knowledge to help.
She told the harrowing stories of the many men and women living in prison who, routinely spent 23 hours a day locked in their cells. This limits education and employment opportunities.
Frances described how inmates live in cramped conditions, in archaic prisons, that are often infested with rats or bed bugs.
The use of batons and strip-searching as a form of punishment were also reported. Frances spoke of how her and The Howard League fight for the legal rights of these individuals, especially of children in custody.
Cuts to Legal Aid
Frances outlined how The Howard League had launched a legal challenge to the government’s decision to cut legal aid for prisoners.
Frances argued that removing legal aid from a range of cases affecting prisoners’ progress through their sentence towards release was unlawful.
Frances stated that “Prisoners need expert legal advice and representation because these are complex issues and they cannot use any other channels to get help. They have no access to the internet, cannot pop into a Citizens’ Advice Bureau, or easily get access to legal books.”
The Power of Magistrates
Frances spoke with passion and diplomacy about how she felt magistrates were given too much power, when they often didn’t have a strong legal background. She mentioned that increasing their powers could only result in, an increase in the number of people in prison and could lead to increase in BAME people being imprisoned.
Frances, instead, supported Magistrates having a more problem solving role within the community rather than that of “punisher”.
Dame Fiona Woolf, having been a magistrate, agreed with this whole-heartedly and felt magistrates had a different role to play within communities.
What you can do?
Frances ardently believes that there is a role for solicitors in this field, and she called for everyone present to become a member of The Howard League for Penal Reform and to write to their MPs about the issues they had heard today.