24 Sep 2016

Prisoners' loss of liberty deserves redress

10:24 am on 24 September 2016

Opinion - Liberty is a right that most of us take for granted every day.

We rarely stop and consider what it would mean to lose access to our family and friends, have someone else dictate what we eat, wear and watch, or simply not be able to walk outside on a beautiful Spring day.

Mt Eden prison

About 500 inmates currently locked up have had their jail time calculated incorrectly. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

It's a right so fundamental to our enjoyment of life that it is the right we take away from those who offend against society. When we do so, we exercise tremendous care through a system with strong checks and balances.

This week's decision by the Supreme Court that the Department of Corrections has miscalculated the length of potentially thousands of prisoners' sentences demonstrates the importance of an independent check on the prison system.

It's at the heart of our justice system that a person should only be imprisoned according to the law, and through a fair and proper process.

Once a person has served their sentence, we agree that they have paid their debt to society and they are as deserving of their freedom as any other citizen.

For the prisoners to whom this Supreme Court ruling applies, their ongoing imprisonment beyond the end of their sentence is no less arbitrary and outrageous than a person being plucked off the street and detained without reason.

For many people, this argument can be hard to swallow. After all, many people in prison have committed crimes that have caused great harm. Why should we care whether or not their rights are upheld - and why should we compensate them for when they are not?

The reason we should care is because we all have an interest in a justice system that upholds the rights and protections of the law.

History is ripe with examples of where a person's rights have been undermined, or due process has been neglected, resulting in great injustice.

It is likely that at some point you, or someone you care about, will need to rely on the protection of the law - be it fighting an unfair parking ticket, seeking protection from an abusive partner, or defending unfair criminal allegations - and it will be the same justice system that upholds the rights of prisoners that will uphold your rights.

If the government gets it wrong, we can reasonably expect that it will be held to account - just as individuals are.

The suggestion that these prisoners should not be eligible for compensation having been unlawfully detained suggests this government thinks of itself as above the law.

Indeed, there is a certain hypocrisy about a government expecting it can break the law without consequence in the process of punishing its citizens for doing the same.

If any one of our elected representatives were to be unlawfully detained, they would expect redress. These prisoners, and indeed anyone with an interest in a strong and healthy justice system, are justified in sharing this expectation.

*Di White is a social justice lawyer, and writes about criminal justice and human rights. She is a member of criminal justice advocacy group JustSpeakand is currently based in Melbourne.

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