This blog forms part of a series celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Recognising the numerous conflicts and the daily breaches of human rights taking place across the globe, this series aims to highlight both the challenges and the opportunities to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights elaborated in the UDHR.
Dignity Brings about Change
‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’
When I was a prisoner at 19 in Taiwan, I slept on the floor of my cell between two other men. We did not have running water and so filled buckets to use for cleaning and washing. Twice a week we were allowed 20 minutes of exercise. We had no rights which I was aware of, but I felt deeply that this was not how people should be treated and convinced it would not reduce reoffending.
I was eventually transferred to prison in the United Kingdom which had its own challenges. Prisoners would queue at a shuttered window clutching a stinking prison jumper or wet pair of joggers to trade for a fresh one, only to be told there weren’t enough to go around. During the Beast from the East, I piled everything I had around me, including a damp towel, so I wouldn’t freeze to death as there weren’t enough blankets. Days would sometimes pass without being let out of our cells, and when we were, we had to choose between a shower, posting important forms, or exercise. Grime and slime coated the showers, with only the foolhardy or unfortunate braving them barefoot. Dignity was nowhere to be found.
I reached an open prison and was elected by my fellow prisoners to lead the Prison Council. I was determined to act with reason and conscience to change the injustices which had so grated on me – and to discover new injustices and fight those also. Previously the Council had been viewed as self-serving, but I endeavored to change that, and proceed in the spirit of brotherhood.
Alongside my co-leader, we set up targeted forums to identify issues affecting prisoners. Black, Asian, and minority ethnic offenders felt they were being overlooked for jobs within the prison. We drafted, negotiated, and implemented a new employment policy which ensured that all jobs were properly advertised and interviewed for. Prisoners complained of swarms of rats, lack of heating in winter, and broken showers. We liaised with the works department and put-up posters informing people of how to report such issues, which resulted in faster fixes. We held regular meetings with senior management, sat on the prison equalities board, and lobbied for better access to work and education. Essential forms for day or overnight release were overcomplicated, creating barriers to rehabilitation for those offenders with poor literacy. We leveraged the goodwill we had built up with management and were permitted to rewrite the forms ourselves to be far more accessible. The improvements I secured made the prison safer, more effective, and not by coincidence – more dignified.
Despite what some in Government would have us believe, we should not be meeting demand for prisons, but reducing it. When we take a person’s freedom that they were born into, we must not rob them of their dignity also. For it is dignity which inspires hope, and hope which inspires change.
As part of the GJA UDHR@75 celebration, we invited present and past students to contribute their personal reflections on the relevance of the UDHR today. This blog is by Chris Walters. Chris is a law student and Longford Trust scholar.