On Wednesday 9 November 2011, after eight hours of deliberation, a jury at Newcastle Crown Court revealed its final verdict on the trial of Kevan Thakrar – not guilty of any of the five charges he faced.
The verdict would usually have attracted little interest – but for the charges and background to the case. Kevan Thakrar was not only a high security prisoner serving life with a minimum of 35 years for ‘joint enterprise’ in respect of three drug-related murders (crimes he has always protested his innocence of) but he was charged with two counts of attempted murder and three counts of wounding with intent – all against prison officers at HMP Frankland prison.
The case seemed a foregone conclusion. Kevan Thakrar did not deny that he had caused the injuries with a broken sauce bottle; there was CCTV footage; and the prosecution called no fewer that 25 prison officers and officials. But the defence to the charges was never about whether the incident had actually happened. It rested on whether Kevan Thakrar was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder caused by a longstanding and embedded regime of racism, and physical and sexual violence within HMP Frankland directed against him and other mainly non white prisoners’- and if, as a result of this, he had acted out of fear for his own life.
Prisoner after prisoner was called to testify against the regime to which Kevan Thakrar had been subjected for 17 months. The jury heard that prison officers at HMP Frankland divided the prison population into ‘Muslim’ and ‘non-Muslim’ based on the colour of their skin, and that they believed Thakrar – who is mixed race – was a Muslim. Witnesses for the defence also said that white prisoners were actively encouraged by staff to attack non white prisoners and would turn a blind eye to such attacks.
A crucial part of the defence case rested on the evidence of consultant psychologist Roy Shuttleworth. He was originally asked to be a witness for the prosecuting authorities – but the report they paid for did not tally with what they wanted to hear. Inconveniently it said that Thakrar was indeed in the grip of severe depression, suffering post-traumatic stress disorder when the attack happened, triggered by flashbacks to prison beatings and nightmares. This led to the rather unreal situation of Shuttleworth being called as defence witness and cross-examined by the prosecution – the very people who had initially employed him.
When Kevan Thakrar himself gave evidence, he explained: ‘If you put an animal in a cage, poke it and then unlock the door, it is not going to just sit there’.
The defence also exposed the fact that the prison officers had been sent on a specific course in order to learn how to give evidence in court. Prison officer witnesses completely denied knowledge of the injuries Thakrar had himself sustained following the attack – claiming he had suffered just a cut lip and had himself then rubbed blood on his face. They also all denied the existence of ‘a culture of racism’ in the prison.
The verdict when delivered – was by any account extraordinary – a condemnation of what the jury heard and accepted that it was a brutal regime operating within HMP Frankland.
This is not the first time HMP Frankland have found themselves in the dock. In 2005, an inquest jury heard evidence relating to the death of a prisoner, Paul Day, found hanged in the segregation unit at Frankland in 2002. Again prisoner after prisoner testified to the appalling conditions and daily abuse within the prison and the Durham Coroner – unusually in such cases – went as far as to say he did not accept the evidence of some of the staff. In case anyone thinks it is just simply prisoners supporting other prisoners – in 2008 the then chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, said black and ethnic minority prisoners, particularly Muslims, felt unsafe at the jail. In that year, a Muslim prisoner had his cell set alight and earlier, another had boiling cooking oil poured over him.
The family of Craig Wylde, one of the officers injured, travelled to the House of Commons to meet Crispin Blunt, the Parliamentary under-secretary of state for prisons and probation – and to ask for a retrial. Concerns have been expressed over jury tampering – though no actual evidence beyond their verdict appears to have been adduced to substantiate this.
What is clear is that the regime at Frankland – which Kevan Thakrar’s barrister said at the start of the case would be ‘put on trial’ – has been found guilty. Instead of questioning the jury verdict – should not the starting point be an investigation into the regime at Frankland and the allegations of beatings and violence directed towards non white prisoners?
Matt Evans is the Director of the AIRE Centre, a specialist charity whose mission is to promote awareness of European law rights and assist marginalised individuals and those in vulnerable circumstances to assert those rights. Previously he was the Managing Solicitor at the Prisoners Advice Service for 6 years and worked at a number of leading legal aid firms including TV Edwards, Hickman and Rose and Hodge Jones and Allen.