08/01/2012 18:40 GMT | Updated 09/03/2012 05:12 GMT

Being Behind Bars Doesn't Negate Your Humanity

Ken Clarke recently announced plans to end the right to compensation for prisoners injured in custody. The arguments in favour seem simple: prisoners have committed a crime, which negates their right to certain protections - including, seemingly, their protection from violence. This sends a clear message that prisoners have no right to speak up against violence in prison - even, in fact, that they deserve it.

But isn't that what we call torture? We've all heard of Abu Ghraib - the sexual abuse, the hoodings, the murders. We used this as a barometer against which to define our own culture, to underline our moral superiority, to rail against crimes committed far away from us. But it was only their distance which defined for us so clearly what was wrong. Meanwhile, in our own prisons 14 year olds hang themselves, children are taken away from mothers and black men are murdered by racists while neglectful guards turn their backs.

Arguments which portray prisoners as undeserving of basic rights - such as the right to freedom from violence and, earlier this year, the right to vote - rely on a dehumanisation of prisoners, portraying them as caricatures of themselves: the figure in the shadows who needs to be locked away for the good of society. Prisoners are not thought of as children, young people or mothers.

This hides the reality of prison violence, where the most vulnerable are also the most likely to be attacked. From 2003-2008, the Howard League (a charity which campaigns for reform of the prison system) reported a 31% increase in prison violence, with young people - some as young as 12 - the most likely to be affected. Self harm in particular has increased among women, many of whom have been forcibly separated from their children. In fact, imprisonment leaves a shocking 17,000 children a year without a mother; 6,000 of this number are simply 'forgotten' - their whereabouts unknown. Perhaps most heartbreaking are the cases of Adam Rickwood, a 14 year old who hung himself with his shoelaces in a secure prison unit, and 15 year old Gareth Myatt, who died after choking on his own vomit while being held down by guards.

These stories are overlooked because they force us to answer uncomfortable questions about a justice system which we thought fair and infallible, making us reconsider previously held notions about those we considered inhuman and deserving of pain. The truth is that in most cases prison authorities are at least partly to blame for assaults and suicides, whether through neglect, malpractice or outright violence.

The Howard League largely attributes increasing violence to overcrowding and mistreatment of mentally ill patients - placing the blame for violence in the hands of the state. Prison authorities are to blame in the cases of Shahid Aziz and Zahid Mubarek, both murdered by their cell mates in racist attacks despite guards having warning in both cases of the dangers the racists posed to others.

14 year old Adam Rickwood died in a 'secure training centre' - an institution which attempts to enforce 'discipline' in persistent offenders aged 12-14. Disciplinary procedures in these institutions include strikes to the ribs, groin and face; the manual itself admits that there is a danger of skull fractures and 'temporary or permanent blindness'. And the Institute for Race Relations' roll call of black and ethnic minority deaths in custody reads like an indictment of the justice system, written in the blood of some of society's most vulnerable people. Mohammed Bin Duhri, found hanged in Belmarsh prison; officers suspended after allegedly filing reports saying he was alive when he was already dead. Norman Manning, stabbed to death by inmates. Kenneth Severin, found dead after having been restrained face down by eight guards; inquest rules that death is suspicious.

In the forgotten world inside prisons, such assaults are not only common but institutionally condoned, as courts repeatedly refuse to prosecute prison authorities who abuse or neglect prisoners, and families' calls to reopen inquests are ignored. Denying prisoners the right to compensation would only further excuse this violence, giving prisoners one less avenue to challenge it.

But the best reply to Clarke's move is a look at the ongoing struggles of prisoners themselves to get justice, outlined in Mumia Abu-Jamal's book Jailhouse Lawyers.

The book tells of prisoners who learn the law themselves, becoming familiar enough with it to insist on its application and secure the justice that prison guards and professional lawyers deny them. It was a prisoner - Clarence Earl Gideon, a 51 year old homeless man who dropped out of school in the eighth grade - who secured the right to free legal representation for those who had committed a criminal offence, in a landmark 1963 case.

UK prisoner lawyers have used the law to return property stolen by prison officers, gain compensation for violence and theft and expose falsified drugs tests. It is these people who will be affected by moves to end the right of prisoners to gain compensation for injuries, denying them a valuable avenue of justice. Violence against prisoners will increase as violent cellmates and neglectful prison officers know that the law justifies their actions, pushing prisoners further into the dim areas beyond the reach of justice and the eye of the media, where anything can happen to them.

It is a question that we, like many other so-called liberal democracies, have to ask: how far do we go before we actively begin erasing the freedoms we once fought for? How can we be committed to freedom from violence and equal application of the law if there are people in our society deemed inhuman and undeserving, locked up far away from the public eye, to whom we deny those freedoms every day?

Mumia Abu-Jamal's book Jailhouse Lawyers is available to buy here or on Amazon