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Friday, February 25, 2005

Scoffing at a meaningless apology

I feel the need to explain myself to you, my dear readers, you curious onlookers at this journalistic car crash that I call a column. Yet again "Baby Blunkett", Charles Clarke, features in this week's light-hearted romp through our postmodern, liberty-lite, corporately sponsored Labour landscape. Though I will admit to being mildly fascinated by some aspects of Clarke, in particular how his face manages to look like a scrotum with a hangover, I insist that I am not fixated on him. There are no pictures of him covering my bedroom walls nor do I send him Hallmark cards with pictures of kittens on the front and "I thought our love was special" written in blood on the inside. He features yet again simply because he is so steeped in new Labour funk.

Recently, Clarke's boss managed to apologise on behalf of the British state to the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven for their wrongful imprisonment. Admittedly, it was long overdue, but the apology when Tony Blair met Gerry Conlon and others face to face in private was hugely important for them, and is indeed an example of what our judiciary and executive should be doing more often. Yet for me, this apology, when placed alongside the general practice of dealing with such cases, has about the same sincerity and commitment to justice as an al-Qaeda victim support hotline.

How does the British state apologise to those it wrongfully imprisons?

Vincent Hickey and his cousin Michael Hickey served 18 years after being wrongfully convicted of the murder of Carl Bridgewater, a newspaper delivery boy. The Home Office gave them a special type of apology: it charged them £60,000 each for food and lodgings they received while wrongly imprisoned. The Home Office is fighting legal challenges for the right to charge B&B to innocent people, to be deducted from their compensation, no doubt for all the trouble they caused by not being guilty.

What kind of "sorry" did Johnnie Kamara get? Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1981 for the murder of a betting-shop manager, Kamara served more than 19 years, of which nearly 16 were spent in solitary confinement, one continuous stretch lasting four and a half years. He was released suddenly, when the authorities produced a mere 201 eyewitness testimonies that had not been disclosed at the trial. One of these came from the headmaster at Kamara's sister's school; he vouched that Kamara was in his office at the time the murder took place.

What repentant arms stretched out from the British state when Kamara, who had suffered depression in prison, was released? He was left on the steps of the Court of Appeal with £46, a Travelcard and some bin liners with his belongings. The state wouldn't help an innocent man, who had served years in solitary confinement, find a bed for the night.

Admittedly, two years after his release, a small special unit at the Royal Courts of Justice in London was created to provide help and assistance specifically to victims of miscarriages of justice - a small but significant step. However, the biggest problems are not learning how to fill in forms, but psychological.

Dr Adrian Grounds is one of the few professionals to assess the psychological effects of wrongful conviction and imprisonment. His findings were published last year. In a period of more than ten years, Grounds assessed 18 men, all victims of miscarriages of justice, including four of the Birmingham Six and one of the Guildford Four. He found that 14 of the 18 "fitted the diagnostic category of enduring personality change after catastrophic experience". Twelve met the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. "Since release, ten of the men had suffered from depressive disorders; five had additional features of panic disorder; four had paranoid symptoms; and three had alcohol or drug dependence."

About 35 people are found to be wrongfully convicted and released each year in the UK. A sizeable number are, quite simply, fucked up and need treatment. But do you think a government that charges innocent people for prison food and lodgings is going to provide practical mental-health support? Well, yes, actually. They have in the past. Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy who was taken hostage in Beirut and held captive for five years, was rightly given counselling on his release, as were members of his family and those who campaigned for his release. And quite rightly, we would have been outraged had the militias that held him captive tried to hand him an itemised bill for the pitas, beans and falafel he consumed. That, I am afraid, is the extent of Britain's treatment for wrongfully held innocent people.

So until Clarke funds effective mental-health treatment for those released after a miscarriage of justice, his boss's "sorry" will continue to ring false compared to the state's determined abandonment of those whose health it has destroyed.


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