Monday, January 30, 2012

Sheridan gagging order is just wrong

Tommy Sheridan, former MSP and Solidarity party leader returns to Glasgow from prison today to serve the remainder of his 3 year sentence for perjury at home.

For six years, certain low risk prisoners have been eligible to be released from prison on home detention curfew to serve part of their sentences at home. They wear an electronic tag around their ankle and have to stay indoors generally for 12 hours a day.

There are certain basic conditions that an offender has to comply with. These include:

1. The offender must be of good behaviour and keep the peace.

2. The offender must not commit any offence.
3. The offender must not tamper with or intentionally damage the electronic monitoring equipment or device(s) used to monitor compliance with curfew conditions complying with section 12AB of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993( 9), or knowingly allow such equipment or device(s) to be tampered with or intentionally damaged.
4. The offender must allow a representative or employee of [ name of electronic monitoring service provider] access to the address specified in this licence for the purposes of section 12AB(1)(a) of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993 to install, check, repair or replace the electronic monitoring equipment or device(s).

So far, so sensible. In addition, the Scottish Parole Board can set further conditions. Keeping away from the victims of the crime would be one we could all agree with, for example, or complying with conditions relating to treatment for addictions. These conditions are all about managing the risk and providing rehabilitation. The restrictions on movement, being confined to one place for half the time is the punishment part. Thinking about it, I reckon that can be much more difficult in some ways than being in prison. Certainly you're out with your family and friends, but you can't just go to that concert with them, or even nip out to the shop if you discover you're out of milk last thing at night. It's not freedom like you and I take for granted.

The Scottish Government has this to say on curfew conditions:

When considering the release on HDC of a prisoner, consideration must be given to:
  • Protecting the public at large
  • Preventing re-offending by the prisoner, and
  • Securing the successful reintegration of the prisoner into the community
All prisoners granted HDC are on licence subject to standard conditions and a curfew condition. Additional conditions may also be included in the licence, such as supervision and support.

The issue I have with Sheridan's conditions are that they include, after a press conference today, a restriction on speaking in public for the six months that he'll be under the home detention curfew. This is a condition that has never been imposed on anyone else before in Scotland. I guess the obvious parallel, although under a different legal system, is with Jeffrey Archer, who was writing ad publishing books while still in prison for a similar offence.

I find it worrying that preventing him from taking part in the debates that will be shaping our country over the next while is seen as legitimate.Don't get me wrong, I have no time for this character at all, but I feel that singling him out in this way is wrong.

Sheridan is not a free man as of today; he is still serving his sentence. However, to impose on him a restriction that has never been imposed on anyone else is additional punishment which is both unnecessary and wrong in principle. If we agree that he's eligible for the partial re-emergence into society that home detention curfew, allows, then surely he must be allowed to take part in discussing the issues of the day.

I was glad to see Willie Rennie taking this up at the weekend. Like me, he doesn't agree with Tommy Sheridan's views, but sees the risks in allowing this sort of condition to be set. He said:

“This order flies in the face of free speech and sets a dangerous precedent.

“Although Mr Sheridan holds views that I do not agree with I do not believe his right to express these views should be curtailed.

“In the run up to May’s local elections and in the early stages of the referendum debate he should be free to take in active role in promoting the things he believes in.

“To bar him participation is counter to our democratic values.”

Although this is a judicial matter, there has to be some sort of check when the Parole Board imposes fundamentally illiberal and unreasonable conditions like this which go way beyond risk management or support. The SNP has a pretty illiberal streak so you can't rely on Kenny MacAskill to notice. This is the guy who dismissed the appalling, repeated failures at Cornton Vale as nowt to do with him as I wrote last year.

I was a bit annoyed that Isabel Fraser didn't ask Nicola Sturgeon about this on the Sunday Politics yesterday. It was as much her responsibility as Stephen Hester's bonus which she was given the opportunity to criticise at length.

As I say, I have no particular desire to listen to Sheridan's firebrand, narcissistic, socialist claptrap, but I don't see why he should be prevented from inflicting it. It's important for our democracy that this condition is lifted.

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