Scottish prisoner wins battle for medical treatment

On 28 October after nearly two months on hunger strike William Johnston finally won his battle for proper medical treatment. He suffers from a spinal condition and before his imprisonment had a steel support rod inserted into his back. In prison he was effectively taken off painkillers and denied contact with the doctor.


On 27 October William, who for almost the entire duration of his hunger strike had lain neglected and ignored in his cell, was summoned to the prison’s health care centre and informed by the manager and a senior nurse that his conflict with the medical authorities at the prison had to be resolved as a matter of urgency. This sudden apparent eagerness to discuss William’s grievance had of course absolutely nothing to do with concern over his seriously deteriorated physical condition and everything to do with inquiries made about his treatment by local MP Gordon Banks, as well as the Scottish First Minister and the British Medical Council. The recent involvement of such figures and organisations in response to a campaign on William’s behalf by friends and supporters on the outside had begun to make the governor’s attempts to defend the medical administration at Glenochil increasingly ineffectual and unconvincing. Completely unaccustomed to such a degree of interest or interference by influential individuals on the outside in the treatment of a prisoner, the administration reacted with alarm and an anxiety to defuse a situation that might potentially lead to greater scrutiny of medical maltreatment at the prison.

At the meeting with the health care manager, William requested the attendance of the prison’s governor, Dan Gunn, and was informed that he was ‘on holiday’. Gunn’s initial attempts to vociferously deny medical neglect in letters to William’s supporters outside soon evaporated in the face of inquiries from Gordon Banks MP and others, and his silence became noticeable as pressure on him began to increase. Instead William was invited to meet with the prison doctor, an individual notoriously compliant to the authority of junior medical staff at the prison and totally subservient to the disciplinary ethos of the prison. William agreed on the condition that a fellow prisoner of his choice be permitted to attend and witness the meeting, which provoked the sudden and emphatic reply that under no circumstances would ‘John Bowden be allowed to attend the meeting’. William had not named me but I had clearly been at the forefront of the governor’s mind as someone responsible for mobilising outside support and using his situation to highlight medical neglect generally at the prison. In fact, the governor had himself provoked concern about William’s situation by lying about his non-existent treatment plan and doing absolutely nothing to investigate and improve the behaviour and attitude of medical staff at his prison.

Finally on 28 October William met with the prison doctor and a proper and appropriate treatment plan for his condition was agreed. As a result William agreed to end his hunger strike. Sadly, though typically, the reaction of the administration at Glenochil to this case was not to assuage concerns by improving standards of medical care and the attitude of those employed to administer it, but instead to seek revenge for the embarrassment caused. Because of my perceived role in highlighting William’s situation, my ‘supervision level’ (something that will impact directly on the length of time I remain in prison) has been recommended to be increased from medium to ‘high risk’.

The morning after William’s hunger strike ended he went to collect his medication and was told that the medical department would only issue his painkillers one at a time so that he would have to go and collect them three times a day. That afternoon they gave him the painkiller and then ordered him to open his mouth. After an intrusive search of his mouth and a drug test he was told that this was how it would be from now on. In other words, he would get his medication but it would not be made easy for him. The next morning he was called to see a doctor who apologised for the treatment he had suffered from the medical staff and told him he had handed in his resignation and that there would be no more victimisation.

After almost two months on hunger strike and a sustained campaign by Brighton Anarchist Black Cross, John McGranaghan and Dr George Coombs, William has finally received the treatment his condition requires. One can only wonder at his fate had he, like the majority of prisoners, been isolated and unsupported.

William’s case highlights two irrefutable truths: the callous disregard of medical staff at Glenochil for the health care of prisoners, and the effectiveness of genuine and committed prisoner support.

John Bowden, HMP Glenochil


Spot the extremist!
Official visitors to high security Whitemoor prison find themselves confronted by a white board giving a break-down of the population into the numbers of prisoners on each wing in the following categories: Category A, Muslim, ‘gang-affiliated’, Black and Minority Ethnic, and Terrorism Act. This labelling process renders any Muslim or non-white prisoner automatically suspect, automatically part of some group to be watched and goes hand-in-hand with repeated press stories over the past year about ‘Muslim gangs’ and Al Qaida prison recruiters. The Prison Service has set up an ‘Extremism Unit’ and has issued all members of staff with a handy, pocket-sized guide to spotting extremists. The guide is mainly concerned with Islamic militants, but also gives clues on identifying dissident Irish Republicans, loyalists, animal rights activists and anarchists.

Stop Titan prisons!
A well-attended meeting in London on 2 November began the process of campaigning to prevent the construction of the massive prisons planned by the British Labour government. A further meeting is to take place on 6 December and the embryonic campaign can be contacted at building. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. There is not yet a postal address but prisoners who want to contribute to the discussion can write to FRFI and we will ensure you are posted copies of the minutes of the meetings and will circulate any material you wish to have considered.

California prisons

And if any indictment of massive, unmanageable, inhumane prisons were needed, a court in California is currently hearing evidence that the state’s huge overcrowded prisons have led to unconstitutionally poor medical and mental health care. The Californian prison system is designed to hold around 100, 000 prisoners but currently holds over 156,300. One prison holds more than 7,000 prisoners; three hold over 6,000; 11 hold over 5,000 and nine hold over 4,000. Three prisons are 230% overcrowded and the others are close behind. This is a direct result of get-tough drug laws and three-strikes sentencing laws first introduced in the 1970s. California’s prison suicide rate is double the national average and there are around 12 murders a year.

FRFI 206 December 2008 / January 2009