What is the role of the prison lawyer?

When you ask this question you usually get some of the following answers:-

  • The prison lawyer is a lawyer who lines his pockets with public funds
  • The prison lawyer is someone who raises spurious claims and complaints on behalf of the least worthy people in society
  • The prison lawyer trawls the prison looking for clients

These views are, at best, ill informed. The prison lawyer’s role is simple. It is to represent those individuals in society who are unable to represent their own interests by virtue of their location in prison.

The legal issues that arise for prisoners are very similar to those dealt with by high street legal aid practices. Often advice is sought on criminal charges, appeals, applications to Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, proceeds of crime, divorce, family/child contact issues, medical negligence, accidents – you name it. All these issues remain relevant to a prisoner serving a sentence. Most of these issues can’t easily be dealt with by a prisoner. This is often due to location but more often due to poor education, literacy and numeracy, drug use, mental health issues etc. If these prisoners were in the community they would walk into the office for help. The only difference is the prison lawyer visits them.

However, prison law is a little more complicated. It involves an in-depth knowledge of the prison rules, the complaints procedure, the segregation procedure, the prisoner progression procedure, the offence focused courses, the parole process. The prison lawyer needs to know the abbreviated terms such as RMT, PCMB, ECMDP, ICM, CARE, VPP, SROBP, SOTP. The prison lawyer needs to know the difference between a determinate sentence, extended sentence, life sentence and an order of life long restriction. The prison lawyer needs to understand how the parole process impacts on each of these sentences. The prison lawyer needs to understand the legal distinction between the Governor of the establishment and the Scottish Ministers. In private prisons the difference in legal responsibilities of the Directors of the Prison and the SPS Controller. The prison lawyer requires an understanding of the make up of prison estate, the names of the prisons and difference between closed conditions, top end and the open estate. The prison lawyer needs to know as much about the workings of the SPS (SERCO and Kylax) and the Parole Board for Scotland as he possibly can.

But most importantly the prison lawyer requires patience, compassion and an ability to listen and to see someone as a human being and not just as a particular crime (murderer, rapist, drug dealer).

To be continued.

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