Tim Blackwell: Why I disagree with jail sentences for Deaf people convicted of Access to Work fraud

Posted on June 29, 2016

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Recently, the Limping Chicken reported that three profoundly Deaf people have each been sentenced to quite long jail sentences for their part in Access to Work fraud. In this post, I want to explain why I do not think these sentences are fair.

However, I should begin by saying that this does not mean I do not think this was a serious crime and that the new prisoners’ actions should not have consequences.

They told lies in order to gain a lot of money that they were not entitled to and used that money to buy things that it is not for.

Furthermore, a number of innocent people were put through the lengthy ordeal of a trial.

As if all that were not bad enough, when Deaf people struggle to get the funds that they need to do their jobs under Access to Work, it is quite understandable if they feel that it has been made harder due to cases like this.

Nevertheless, the main reason I do not think these sentences are fair is because prisons are not designed for Deaf people.

This is apparent in at least two important ways.

Firstly, Deaf prisoners will struggle to communicate with both wardens and fellow prisoners.

Communication is crucial for getting through a period in prison, especially at a time when, due to cuts to resources and staff, prison has become an increasingly violent and dangerous place with assaults and self-harm sky-rocketing.

Secondly, they are unlikely to have the communication support needed to engage with the rehabilitation process that prison is supposed to be mainly about – the activities, classes and jobs will be inaccessible.

For these reasons and more, prison sentences for Deaf people have quite rightly been referred to as a ‘double sentence.’ It is almost like solitary confinement.

We have known about these sort of problems for some time, because people have done research into it. For example, here is a past Limping Chicken article on the subject.

Prisons are supposed to follow the Equality Act and if the Home Office can’t ensure that prisons do actually follow it, then I think they have no business locking Deaf people up.

The rest of my post applies to prisoners in general as well as to Deaf prisoners.

Another reason I do not think these sentences are fair is that they are completely out of proportion to to the harm caused by the crime.

I do not think people should be sent to prison when they have not seriously injured or killed somebody.

This is a dishonesty offence, the harshest sentence was six years imprisonment and yet, by comparison, a famous footballer, for example, was sentenced to five years for rape. In another recent case, somebody who supplied the drugs that killed his friend did not serve any time at all.

Again, speaking generally about prisoners, I do wonder what jail is supposed to achieve, considering that it is very gruelling, expensive and labour intensive.

Is it really anything more than the wrathful revenge of ‘an eye for an eye,’ with a side order of humiliation?

Jail may be needed to deal with the convicted person who has seriously harmed somebody, but otherwise,  as Gandhi famously said, ‘an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.’

Far better, I think, is to have some sort of restorative justice, under which the wrongdoers have to give something back to the community until the victims of the crime are restored as close as possible to the same position they were in before the crime.

For these reasons I believe that the sentences of these Deaf people are too harsh and are unlikely to achieve anything more than crude vengeance.

Of course, others, especially those who have been hurt by these people, may have a very different opinion and I respect that.

Tim is Deaf from a young age, a law graduate and ex CAB volunteer. He is a keen politics, justice and social justice commentator who prefers to communicate in BSL, though he is not as fluent as he would like to be. You can follow him on Twitter as @TimRegency

The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s most popular deaf blog. It is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.

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Posted in: Tim Blackwell