I have just come back from the Liberal Democrats' Scottish conference in Aviemore. A good time seemed to be had by all. I had thought that, not being an office bearer any more, I would be able to wander round doing pretty much as I pleased. No such luck - I spent less than an hour listening to debates all weekend as I kept being dragged off to various meetings. I managed to miss both Nick Clegg's and Nicol Stephen's speeches, much to my annoyance.
One meeting I was determined not to miss was the one organised by Willie Rennie MP to highlight the plight of victims of miscarriages of justice. Basically, if you have had your life ruined by being wrongly imprisoned, sometimes for decades, you are worse off once this injustice is recognised than you would be if you had been guilty.
The meeting was addressed by Paddy Hill, one of the freed Birmingham Six, and John McManus who works for the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation. Paddy powerfully told of his experiences and how the system had continued to let him down after the initial euphoria of his release after 17 years in prison.
If you have been in prison for a long time and you are guilty, a lot of effort goes into preparing you for release into the outside world. You get short visits home, or even outside. You are brought up to date with new technology. You are gradually prepared for life beyond the institution which you have known exclusively for many years. This is very sensible. Prisons can be hostile and unpredictable -Paddy Hill told how you could say Good Morning to a fellow inmate one day and be beaten up for daring to speak to him; if you said nothing the next morning, you could take a drubbing for blanking him. The rules of engagement in a prison environment don't transfer to the outside world, and if they are all you have known for years. If you were locked up in the mid 80s, you would be amazed by things we consider basic, satellite tv, laptops, mobile phones. It would be like being released to a totally different planet.
For those wrongly imprisoned, life is very different. You are basically thrown out of the Appeal Court and left to fend for yourself. You can't claim much on benefits cos you haven't paid NI contributions - cos you've been in prison. You aren't given advice on health care and finding employment. Paddy Hill described it as like a diver having the Bends from being taken to the surface too quickly.
It takes ages to sort your compensation out, too. Too add insult to injury, and you really won't believe this, the Government effectively charges you for the time you've spent inside - your compensation is reduced by a malevolent item called "saved living expenses." So, no mattr that your house might have been repossessed and your family might have suffered terribly, financially, physically and emotionally as a result of your wrongful imprisonment, but the Government thinks it's fine to charge you for your bed and board.
If you are outraged by this, please do the following 3 things:
Have a look here and see what the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation wants to achieve and to read some of the dreadful case histories of people. I am very familiar with some of those involved and have been horrified at their treatment by the state. They have been completely failed by local, Scottish and UK Government.
Tell all your friends about what you see and get them involved.
Write to the Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com), who, so far, incredibly, has refused point blank to even meet with MOJO, and ask him to do something to help. For all I have said about the Labour Government in the past, and will do in the future, at least Home Office Minister Maria Eagle did so and actually listened to what they had to say. It's going to take action at all levels of Government to get something done, and why Mr MacAskill has chosen not to get involved is a mystery. Let's try to change his mind by showing we care, so he should.