Adam James introduces Andrew Coyle, the first professor of prison studies

December 10, 2004

It was April 2002 and Israeli tanks were holding the Palestinian leader, the late Yasser Arafat, under siege in his Ramallah compound in the West Bank.

Governments around the world were desperate to bring the potentially explosive stand-off to an end.

The British Foreign Office believed they had the answer: they contacted Andrew Coyle and asked him to travel to the Middle East to help broker a deal between Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and Arafat.

Coyle, professor of prison studies at King's College London and a former prison governor, was on the next flight to Israel. Over a period of 72 hours, he took part in talks aimed at negotiating the secure transfer of four men convicted of murdering an Israeli minister, and two other prisoners, from Arafat's compound to a prison in Jericho.

He pulled it off, a deal was struck and Israel rolled back its tanks.

"There were a number of times when it could have gone wrong," he says.

"There were Israeli factions in particular that did not want the negotiations to work.

"But eventually Sharon said, 'I have heard everything - now let me see this man Coyle and decide if he is a serious person.' It came down to whether Sharon could trust me. After half an hour he suddenly said 'yes'. If Sharon had not been impressed by the fact that I knew what I was talking about then the deal would not have happened."

Coyle's cool head is the result of years of experience governing four UK prisons, including Brixton where he was appointed governor in 1991 shortly after the escape of some IRA prisoners. There he implemented what he regards as his most worthwhile governing achievement by breaking the "conspiracy of silence" regarding the prison's conditions. He did this by opening the prison up to the public, inviting in TV crews and journalists, and meeting with health officials, judges and magistrates to highlight the situation. It was, he agrees, a "high-risk strategy", but it worked because prisoners blamed the place rather than the staff.

Coyle, who has advised the Government on prison issues and recently joined an inquiry on the killing of loyalist paramilitary Billy Wright, has been director of King's International Centre for Prison Studies since 1997 when the position was created for him (he is still the UK's only professor of prison studies). His work involves liaising with governments around the world on prison reform. He advises not only the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Council of Europe, but several countries and states, including Kazakhstan, Chile, Venezuela and the Palestinian Authority.

The centre has also forged partnerships with governments in dozens of countries, including those with a history of torture and brutal prison regimes. In Turkey, for example, where ill treatment is common in some detention facilities, the centre has been training prison managers in human rights. And Brazil's Minister of Justice has placed an order for 40,000 copies of Coyle's publication, A Human Rights Approach to Prison Management , for his prison staff. Korea and Japan have placed similar orders.

For details of the International Centre for Prison Studies, visit: www.prisonstudies.org

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