The case of Kevan Thakrar, at which I gave evidence, shows that this rotten jail needs root and branch examination
guardian.co.uk, Monday 14 November 2011 13.46 GMT
Kevan Thakrar: cleared of two counts of attempted murder and three counts of wounding with intent after lashing out at Frankland prison officers.
I gave evidence for the defence at Newcastle crown court recently. The man on trial, Kevan Thakrar, was charged with two counts of attempted murder and three counts of wounding with intent. The charges arose from an incident, in March last year, at Frankland prison, a high-security jail in County Durham. Three prison officers, two men and a woman, were wounded when, according to the prosecution, Thakrar launched an unprovoked attack on the three using a broken sauce bottle as a weapon.
The portents for the defence were ominous; the prosecution called no fewer than 25 prison officers and officials – all of impeccable character – and produced CCTV footage showing clearly that Thakrar had indeed lashed out at the officers with his makeshift weapon when they opened his cell door. Thakrar admitted injuring the officers, but said he did so out of fear of being attacked himself. He said he had been physically and sexually abused by staff at Frankland and a systematic racist regime operated at the jail. Thakrar, who is mixed race, said certain officers regarded all non-white prisoners as Muslims and subjected them to constant anti-Muslim abuse. He said some staff at the jail encouraged white prisoners to attack “Muslims”. He claimed to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at the time of the attack, a claim backed up by a consultant psychologist, originally a witness for the prosecution, but called by the defence after his report corroborated Thakrar’s testimony about his state of mind.
The defence called a number of prisoners, who all spoke of a brutal regime at Frankland. Thakrar’s barrister, Joe Stone, said he intended to “put Frankland on trial”. Last week, after a four-week hearing, the all-white, mainly mature jury, found Thakrar not guilty on all counts. By any standards, it was an extraordinary verdict. In finding for the defence, the panel clearly rejected the evidence of more than a score of prison staff, in favour of Thakrar and his witnesses, the vast majority, including me, being of proven “bad character”.
The wounding of the prison officers attracted national headlines, the incident taking place eight days before Ian Huntley, convicted of the Soham murders, received 20 stitches in his neck after being attacked by another prisoner at Frankland. Thakrar’s acquittal went virtually unnoticed in the national press.
This is not the first time a tribunal has refused to accept the word of prison officers at Frankland. In 2005, an inquest jury heard evidence relating to the death of a prisoner, Paul Day, found hanged in the segregation unit at Frankland in 2002. Prisoner after prisoner testified to the appalling conditions and daily abuse and the Durham Coroner said he did not accept the evidence of some of the staff. Since then, I have received allegations of abuse by staff at Frankland on a depressingly regular basis. All the claims have a racist, particularly anti-Muslim, theme running through them and, in 2008, the then chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, said black and ethnic minority prisoners, particularly Muslims, felt unsafe at the jail. In that year, a Muslim prisoner had his cell set alight and earlier, another had boiling cooking oil poured over him.
The prisoners at Frankland – and all other high security prisons – have been convicted of serious offences, many of them beyond the pale in the eyes of the population at large. A former prison governor, now a friend of mine, used to greet new prison officers with these words: “You will be dealing with some people who have committed horrendous crimes. It is your job to keep them safely contained, but to do so with decency and humanity. If you cannot treat them so, the prison service does not want you.” In clearing Thakrar, those 12 good and true jurors at Newcastle crown court delivered a damning verdict on the regime at Frankland prison: they found it guilty as charged. The Ministry of Justice should take note and carry out a root and branch examination of this rotten jail.