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Age and disability discrimination victory on behalf of former prisoner

Lack of wheelchair facilities in prisons under the spotlight as Ministry of Justice settles discrimination claim

30 June 2014

A former prisoner has successfully settled a claim against the Ministry of Justice about the lack of wheelchair facilities for elderly and disabled prisoners within the women’s open prison estate.

The former prisoner, known as Mrs C, is 70 years-old, and has a range of medical conditions and disabilities, which require her to use a wheelchair.

Upon her imprisonment in November 2010, Mrs C was assessed as suitable for closed prison conditions and was imprisoned at HMP Bronzefield, a closed prison in Middlesex.  

Closed prison conditions are those conditions suitable for prisoners who are not trusted to not attempt to escape from prison.  Therefore, unlike open prison conditions, when they leave prison they have to be escorted and when they are in prison they have to follow a strict prison regime.

After a years’ imprisonment, Mrs C was assessed as suitable for open prison conditions.  However, despite this, neither of the two open women’s prisons in England and Wales, HMP East Sutton Park, in Kent, nor HMP Askham Grange, in Yorkshire, would accept her.  She was told that this was because neither of those prisons could accept prisoners in wheelchairs.  

As a result, Mrs C remained imprisoned at HMP Bronzefield until the end of her sentence in May 2013, and, therefore, was unfairly denied the greater freedoms and benefits offered by open prison conditions for a year-and-a half.

Unfortunately, Mrs C’s experience is not an isolated example.  Repeated inspection reports by the Chief Inspectorate of Prisons have identified a lack of wheelchair facilities for elderly and disabled prisoners within the women’s open prison estate.  The most recent of the inspection reports for HMP East Sutton Park, published in November 2011, found that:

“The lack of facilities for wheelchair users together with a similar issue at HMP Askham Grange meant that the Prison Service was unable to provide a place for open conditions for women with severe mobility difficulties who would otherwise meet the criteria”.

Mrs C’s claim was brought under the Equality Act 2010, and argued that she had been unlawfully discriminated against both of the grounds of her age and her disabilities.  Her claim was one of the first claims to be brought under the new age discrimination provisions under the Equality Act 2010, which only came into force in October 2012.

Happily, following the commencement of Mrs C’s claim, the Ministry of Justice agreed to pay her substantial compensation in respect of the unlawful discrimination she had suffered, as well as her reasonable legal costs.

Benjamin Burrows, a solicitor in the prison law team at Leigh Day and who was instructed to act on Mrs C’s behalf, stated that:

“Disabled and elderly women prisoners are routinely given a raw deal when it comes to them being able participate in and progress through the prison system.  An obvious example of this is the lack of facilities for wheelchair-using prisoners in the women’s open prison estate.  The Chief Inspectorate of Prisons has repeatedly raised this problem, yet the Prison Service has so far refused to act.  We hope that Mrs C’s claim will act a catalyst in the Prison Service finally living up to its obligations, and in ensuring an equal service for all prisoners.”

Mrs C’s claim was funded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and she was represented by Jude Bunting of Doughty Street.

Please contact Benjamin Burrows, solicitor in the prison law team, for further details.

Information was correct at time of publishing. See terms and conditions for further details.

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