Special Report

Home Office, Tower of London Division

In its brilliance, Her Majesty’s government now treats the wrongfully imprisoned as welfare cheats.

By 3.18.04

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In case you thought governments were usually embarrassed about putting people in prison for crimes they hadn't committed, check out Britain, mother of parliaments, sceptered isle, home of Magna Carta etc.

On Tuesday, the Home Office, Britain's avuncular-sounding ministry for lawcourts and prisons, asked the Royal Courts of Justice to uphold an amazing practice of charging bed and board to innocent people held for years in UK prisons for crimes they never committed.

That's right, charge wrongfully-convicted people when they are let out for food and accommodation they enjoyed during the prison term they served. Not a few of these unjustly-imprisoned inmates only served sentences because another Home Office employee, such as a police officer, fitted them up with fake evidence.

TAKE ROBERT BROWN, a Glasgow man who at age 19 was found guilty in 1977 of murder. In 2002 he was freed, after 25 years imprisonment in which he continually protested his innocence, his conviction finally overturned by a court.

Cue a bill for the £80,000 (over $140,000) his stay cost the British government.

Or Michael O'Brien, freed in 1999 after it emerged he had not after all murdered a man he was locked up 11 years earlier for killing. He was billed £37,000, except that, to the fury of the Home Office, a court overturned this particular bed-and-board charge. Mr. O'Brien was finally permitted not to pay for being imprisoned for the crime he didn't commit.

Which is why the Home Office went to court this week -- to put a stop to this irritating business of innocent people getting out of paying for their time in jail.

Charges tend to be overlooked, because they appear as deductions from compensation. Wrongfully-imprisoned people get compensation in Britain (fairly mean amounts by U.S. standards), which they are then stunned to find has had a sum deducted for "food and lodging." Home Office officials claim, seemingly with straight faces, that as the food and board would have been consumed by the prisoner anyway during those decades, it is quite reasonable to bill people locked up by miscarriages of justice.

So O'Brien got compensation of £650,000, just over a million dollars. Not generous, but something with which to rebuild a broken life. Finding that £37,000 ($67,000) was deducted from that compensation is perhaps more insult than injury -- but what an insult. Not surprisingly, O'Brien argued the amount symbolically reasserted his guilt, even after he had been cleared completely of the crime.... as if the police, courts, and prison system could only admit they had made a mistake in the most grudging, sour-faced way imaginable.

HOME SECRETARY DAVID BLUNKETT, Britain's most powerful blind man, is being criticized for pressing his department's right to claw back chunks of settlements wrongly-imprisoned people get once someone listens to them. Settlements the Home Office clearly resents, with startlingly public pettiness.

But though Blunkett, whose guide dog has become a familiar figure in TV talk shows and the House of Commons, does seem to be channeling his Inner Kommandant ever more keenly, this prison-cost clawback is not just him. It is deeply rooted in the department's eerie, authoritarian culture. Several British politicians since the mid 1970s rapidly became darker, flintier figures after spending too long among Home Office employees.

Michael Howard, current leader of the Conservative Party -- possibly the next British Prime Minister -- was said to have "something of the night" about him when he was Home Secretary. Newspapers referred to Merlyn Rees, Labour Secretary of State in the 1970s, as "the sinister Merlyn Rees." Ann Widdecombe, Minister of State at the Home Office in the late 1990s, was frequently called "scary" and "weird." Recent Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw started to sound sneering and bitter in the post. The Home Office is often called "the graveyard of political reputations" by Westminster-watchers.

The sightless Blunkett advocates scanning every eyeball in Britain to create the ID card system the Home Office yearns for, complains juries mean the government gets fewer convictions (that can't be good, can it?), and this week demanded powers to charge bars and restaurants for drunken violence in streets nearby. He's clearly not shy about bossing people around. But is he just another politician to have fallen among hard-faced advisers at the Home Office?

Westminster wits privately claim that Home Office civil servants are bitter about their own life sentence -- having to work in the ugliest ministry buildings in British government. The address "Queen Anne Gate" suggests an early-18th-century Augustan terrace along the civilized lines of Williamsburg. But since the '60s it has been a darkly forbidding concrete building in a style literally known among architects as "New Brutalist." The Home Office is moving to another site in 2005.

Will we see fewer spiteful gestures towards men like Vincent Hickey and his cousin Michael (both wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years, both billed 60,000 pounds for bed and board) once Britain's law-and-order officials work a year or two in pleasanter premises?

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