Common Sense: Destroying Property

A couple of months ago a notice to prisoners appeared on the landings to inform us that the Ministry of Justice has now authorised governors to destroy any property confiscated from a prisoner after a set amount of time.

They say that if the property is not a permitted item (such as a mobile telephone) then it may be destroyed unless the prisoner can provide a valid reason not to do so, and if the property is a permitted item, but is confiscated for another reason (such as it not being listed on the prisoner’s property card) then it may be destroyed unless another prisoner makes a claim for it (and can prove it is theirs) within the fixed time limit. However, there are numerous things wrong with this new policy.

Firstly, if a piece of property is taken from a prisoner because it is not on his property card then that does not necessarily mean it is not his. I have personally experienced prop card errors where items which you have lawfully held for years do not appear on your card for no other reason than human error. Similarly, I have often experienced officers listing items so vaguely on the prop card (out of laziness) that it is impossible to tell if what is written refers to what is held at all. For example, I once had a listing on my property card which simply said “10 x books”. It didn’t say which ones. When my cell was searched, a couple of years later I had a fair few more books than that because people who were getting released had left me them. But the searching officers had no way of knowing which ones were mine and which ones were not. So what would they do under this new policy? Would they take and destroy them all, knowing that at least ten of those destroyed are lawfully mine, and opening themselves up to a claim for destruction of lawful property, or do they leave me with them all, knowing I am not strictly allowed to keep those that were left to me? They could try to make me identify which ten I want to keep, but they can’t lawfully order me to. There is no rule which states that I must, so no sane person would go along with that. Prison has to be the only place where property which has been consensually given to you is not classed as your own property.

Furthermore, property goes missing in prison all of the time. So lets say that five people in a year have their portable radio stolen from their cell. And lets say that all of them report it but none of them are found. Then let’s say that a random cell spin a year later shows up that someone has a portable radio which doesn’t belong to them. It’s confiscated but the serial number, as always, is scrubbed out. Will the governor advertise that a radio has been found? And if not and the time period runs out for anyone to make a claim, meaning that the radio is destroyed, will the governor compensate all five prisoners when they find out on the grapevine that a radio which could have been theirs but which they weren’t told had been found is now destroyed? Even if it is advertised, how will the governor decide who the radio belongs to? If they give it to one they will probably have to compensate the rest. If they refuse to give it to any of them, they will probably have to compensate them all.

But the problems don’t end there. The question arises of whether destruction is a moral action even if it is ever appropriate. Take mobile telephones for example. There are hundreds of phones found and confiscated in British prisons each year. And now they say that these will all be destroyed whilst charities on the outside spend immense amounts of time and money encouraging people to donate old phones so that they can be reconditioned and sent to third world countries. Shouldn’t we just be donating those confiscated? And the same goes for all other property too. Why would we ever destroy something which could be donated to those in need? This policy is simply ridiculous on every level.

Chris Grayling must have thought of it personally.

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