The use of wearable body cameras has been rolled out amongst police forces across the world and now the Prison Officers’ Association says they want them too. The only problem is, cameras in prison seem to come with a one hundred percent blind spot.
Prisons are already covered by far more CCTV cameras than your average building in the outside world, and if a prisoner ever does anything wrong against a member of staff the footage is there and ready to use on adjudication the very next day. But if a prisoner enters another person’s cell to wreck it, to steal something, or even to attack them, then we are invariably given the brush off.
“The camera was switched off”, “Your door isn’t covered from that angle”, and “You were standing in a blind spot”, are all answers I have personally heard other prisoners being given over the years. But I have also heard the true answer: “The cameras aren’t there for you, they’re there for us”. At least that officer was honest, eh? The thing is, body worn cameras would only make this worse. Prisoners rarely attack one another right in front of an officer and in one court case (Hartshorn v SSHD (1999) (Civ.Div)) the judge even said that “…In prison there is some risk that prisoners will be violent to each other. If they are determined to attack other inmates they are usually cunning enough to do so at a time when someone’s back is turned, or there is no immediate supervision.” His assertion was that there is some violence in jail which staff cannot be expected to predict or prevent, because they are simply not there to see it. And body worn cameras cannot possibly help with that. But what about violence perpetrated by staff themselves?
I have twice been assaulted by prison officers. The first time by a single officer on a wing landing, and the second by a group of three officers in my own cell. I have also been threatened by a number of others on various occasions. With regard to the first assault, it was in the direct line of sight of a camera. I reported it immediately and was told I could not see the police as an incident in prison is only a crime if the Governor says it is. The next day, the Governor did bring the police in and I was interviewed. In reply, the officer in question said that I had lunged at him first and he placed me on report. Of course, the camera could prove this wasn’t true. During adjudication I asked for a copy of the CCTV evidence (as was my right) but the Governor said that he would review it himself and would disclose it only if he thought it needed to be used. I have no faith in the impartiality of adjudicating governors and I already knew that the camera would show that I did nothing wrong but had been assaulted myself. However, I also knew that he was never going to let me have the evidence I needed to have his officer charged. I say his officer and not the officer, because that is how the Governor referred to the officer himself.
However, I did hold out a little bit of faith that the police would obtain the camera evidence anyway and that the truth would come out. That simply didn’t happen. As it turned out, the investigating police officer was permanently based at the prison in question, and worked there full time. Already that was enough for me to question her independence. Then she told me that the camera showed nothing. I knew that was untrue so I asked her for a copy of her report, wanting to find out if she had even viewed the video. She refused to disclose it, even in redacted form. I complained to the IPCC, who said they would investigate but then simply asked the officer if she had investigated the incident in full and accepted her word that she had without digging any further. No matter what I did, I was not permitted to obtain the camera evidence which would prove me innocent and the officer guilty.
The second time I was assaulted there were no cameras at all, but I still reported it. Again the officer claimed that I had assaulted him first and placed me on report. This time it was me who was reported to the police. They investigated and found that I had done nothing wrong, so they took it no further. But no one investigated whether I had been assaulted myself at all.
If prison officers were issued body worn cameras, neither of these incidents would have gone any better. In the first assault, the camera evidence completely backed up the fact that I was the victim not the perpetrator, but it was hidden and covered up by prison management, with the collusion of the police liaison officer. If body cameras were available in either case, the same would simply happen to this footage too. But, as is already the case, if it truly is the prisoner in the wrong, there is never any problem in obtaining and producing video evidence. Just so long as it is a member of staff who benefits from it and not another prisoner. If body cameras come in and make any difference at all, it won’t be a positive one. It will never be used to encourage impartiality, it will only be used when it is convenient. Anything beneficial to prisoners will be caught in a 100% blind spot.