Prisoner EH6324 Wyner
Ruth Wyner, one of the Cambridge Two, writes from prison
31st May 2000
Ruth Wyner (Drop in centre director) and John Brock (drop in centre manager) were jailed for five and four years respectively in 1999 for failing to tell police that drug dealing was taking place in the homeless drop-in centre where they worked.
It took police five months of undercover operations involving the use of hidden cameras to identify the drug dealers but the judge ruled that, although they were not involved in the drug dealing, Wyner and Brock should have known about it and should have informed the police. In a letter sent from her prison cell at the end of May, Ruth Wyner speaks of her reaction to the outlandish sentences and points at possible hidden agendas.
I've been working in the homeless sector for 20 years, first in Norwich where I spent 10 years doing shifts at an old church night shelter while my two children were growing up, going on to manage a new-build shelter which I had help to set up. Then I went to Great Yarmouth to run a resettlement scheme and set up a new hostel and some move-on housing.
In January 1995 I moved to Cambridge with my family to take on the job of Director of Wintercomfort. It seemed like my kind of organisation, involved in campaigning for the homeless as well as setting up and running projects. The homeless problem in Cambridge was the worst I had seen throughout East and Mid-Anglia and I aimed to publicise that locally and nationally as well as working to improve services.
We managed to get more money in from the government as well as charitable trusts and local funders to develop The Bus drop-in centre, the resettlement work, extending shelter provision, setting up street outreach work and running training schemes for the homeless. There was a lot of support from local people as Wintercomfort became more high profile. Donations came in, which helped us to keep going, and we had hundreds of volunteers on our books.
But as so often happens in this work, when you campaign hard, when you pop your head above the parapet to fight for your cause, we had enemies as well as friends. Often people are disgusted and frightened by the homeless, their plight stirs up emotions that they would rather ignore.
Wintercomfort is, as its patron says, doing the hardest work, at the coalface. The customer group is treated with respect, there is a real community feel to the organisation. It is a great place to work, and provides a local response to local needs. I enjoyed my time there.
Why was I arrested?
When I was arrested in May 1998 I was on the verge of setting up a new £1 million housing and rehabilitation project for homeless people, particularly those living on the streets. We had a site, planning permission and a large proportion of the cost required.
The project had caused a lot of controversy: many of the people living nearby had strenuously objected and one person was running a campaign against us. Even the police had objected to it, in writing. As a result of my arrest and imprisonment, that project has had to be postponed. Meanwhile, Cambridge continues to have one of the highest levels of street homelessness in the country.
I often wonder whether the work I'd been doing to set up this project was behind my arrest. At the time, we thought we had good police liaison at the Bus Day Centre: regular visits from the local beat bobby and six-weekly Advisory Group meetings on the site, attended by a police Inspector.
We were all concerned about the increasing use of heroin among the homeless population and discussed it often and openly, thinking we had the support and assistance of the police. The Inspector reassured us that we were "working within our remit", but did say that his view was not shared by all of his colleagues. When I offered to speak to them he said his "softly softly" approach was best.
The only sign of any real disagreement came at an Advisory Group meeting, when the Inspector asked for the names of all the people we had banned from The Bus day centre in the last few months for infringement of our drugs policy, for using on the site, or for suspected dealing.
Everyone at the meeting said that this was not possible and we explained our confidentiality policy. The Inspector said no more and seemed satisfied, but less than a month afterwards I was arrested. I later discovered that the police had mounted a secret surveillance camera, which showed dealing going on in our courtyard of which staff and I were not aware. We did not have the "eye in the sky" vantage point that the camera had, set up in the roof of a building over the road.
Why the court refused to believe that John and I did not know of this dealing, I will never understand. We had been doing a lot to strengthen our drug policies and the implementation of them, and they were seen as quite strict. In fact, the National Day Centres Project used our policies as model ones for other projects.
Cambridge had a particularly bad heroin problem at the time, the streets were awash with the stuff and we saw first hand the devastation it had caused to people's lives. Perhaps Cambridge Police should be called to account for not controlling things better.
It seems to me that opinions were split among the local Police, some wanting to attack Wintercomfort, others horrified that such a step was taken. We were a small local charity and maybe seen as an easy target. It also seems that by working with destitute people, the dispossessed and those often in despair, we came to be viewed as part of the problem instead of as part of the solution.
I'm concerned that our prosecution could have the effect of limiting the availability of help for drug addicts because workers are understandably anxious to protect themselves. But forcing addicts to stay on the streets hardly seems a sensible solution for society as a whole.
Life in prison
Inactivity is the major frustration of prison life. I am used to working long hours and enjoying a busy home life with my family. Here, with the constant lock-ups, the monotony of life and the continuous restrictions in a boring environment, it is hard to become motivated to do anything.
The working day is around 5 hours: 8.45 am - 11.30 am in the morning and 1.45 pm to 4.00 pm in the afternoons. The education department here has little to offer me, all the courses are very basic, but there is an art class. Initially I did that in the mornings and worked in the gardens in the afternoon, both activities that I normally consider to be leisure pursuits. Then a publisher wrote to me, encouraging me to do some writing. It took me nearly three months to get hold of a typewriter, I am allowed no access to computers to do my own work. I now do my own writing on the unit in the mornings and I've stuck with the afternoon gardening: it's good to get outside and have a bit of activity, even if it's just cutting the grass or whatever.
At weekends we have no work and get locked up from 12.00 to 6.00 pm. I manage to get to the gym two or three times a week. Generally, prison life is typified by lots of lock up, boring routine and hanging around, your life feeling like it is no longer your own. Needless to say, the food is pretty bad. I manage to ring home most evenings and have four one and a half hour visits a month which helps me keep in contact with the family.
I find the other inmates generally friendly but know that a lot of damage is being done by this incarceration to them and their families, and in so many cases it does not seem necessary.
I suppose working in a night shelter is a good preparation for jail, except that here it's 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The officers are mostly easy enough to get on with. They were a bit wary of me at first and don't have what I would see as a particularly attractive job, keeping control in what is basically a pretty inhumane environment. Some seem to enjoy the power that they have over us inmates. I often feel in the dark about what they are doing. We have male and female officers here, generally referred to as "screws" or "kangas" (kangaroo=screw).
I enjoyed working in the homelessness sector and felt a passion for my job. That has now been taken away, so it seems, and it's hard to see what may be ahead for me personally. I have learnt a lot from being in prison, about myself and about what prison really means.
Maybe in the future I will have an opportunity to contribute in a different way. I also hope to produce something with my writing that might be of some interest to the general public, but have a great deal of work yet to do. Working with a typewriter is a lot slower than on a computer. I have been heartened to discover that, Woody Allen no less, has always written on a typewriter and still does. I'm in good company.
I hope that the case does not badly affect the rest of the homeless sector and its ability to work with people who misuse drugs. This group forms a significant section of the homeless population. Perhaps the case will add to the debate of how we can best work with people who have problems with drugs. I, of course, meet a lot of addicts in prison and cannot see that jailing them does much good. They seem to spend their time longing to get out and have another hit. Drugs are, of course, available to some extent in prison.
Finally I would like to thank all the people who have written to me in prison, and who continue to write: friends, colleagues, people who I've never met, and all those who are supporting John and I, and those campaigning against the injustice that has been perpetrated against us.
I very much hope that Wintercomfort carries on, as it is doing, with its imaginative and effective work. It is a very special organisation.
I am indebted to my family which has remained so strong for me: Gordon my husband (we have been together for 26 years), my 23 year old son Joel, my 16 year old daughter Rachel (now doing her GCSEs), my mother, my sister and her family, and all my extended family.
I feel most particularly for my close family. As the saying goes in here: "They do your sentence with you." Let's hope for the right result with the appeal.
With all good wishes
CAMBRIDGE TWO IMPRISONED - HM HIGHPOINT - Homeless drop-in centre staff imprisoned due to drug dealing on premises - 17-Feb-2000
TWO FREE FOR NOW - Cambridge Two - both charity workers jailed for supposedly allowing drug dealing in a homeless centre where they worked are free on bail - 24-Jul-2000