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Jailed for helping the homeless

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Issue 1679

Scandal of conviction of Cambridge charity workers

Jailed for helping the homeless

By Kevin Ovenden

THE CASE of Ruth Wyner and John Brock seems like an impossible nightmare. The two Cambridge charity workers were jailed on 17 December for five and four years respectively. Their supposed crime was to run a day centre for homeless people and not be aware that a handful of the hundreds of clients they saw were supplying small quantities of drugs to other users of the centre.

Cambridgeshire police targeted the Wintercomfort day centre with an undercover operation in spring 1998. They amassed 300 hours of videotape evidence and sent in two officers, pretending to be homeless people, to try and buy drugs. Neither the undercover officers nor the video evidence implicated Ruth, John or any other Wintercomfort worker in dealing drugs or benefiting from it. The judge who sent Ruth and John down conceded that they had never been involved in drug dealing. Yet he gave them longer sentences than the eight people the police charged as small time drug dealers.

This shocking case reeks of injustice. Ruth and John were convicted under a law which was introduced to deal with people who run pubs and clubs as drug dealing outlets. This is the first time the law has been used against people running charity premises set up to help those who are homeless or have a drugs problem.

As Roy Wolford, the governor of Park prison in Bridg end, told the Independent newspaper in December, “If these people are guilty then prison governors should be brought to book because, technically, with the level of drug taking there demonstrably is in prison, we are failing too.”

There was no evidence that Ruth and John allowed drug dealing. Indeed they had banned people from the project for breaking its anti-drugs policy, which is clearly displayed as you enter the building. The prosecution simply argued that Ruth and John must have known what was taking place.

Yet at no time did the local beat officer, who dropped in regularly, or the Cambridge shire police inspector who sat on the charity’s advisory board, warn the two workers that there was a drugs problem. In fact, they commended the charity’s work with drug users.

Class action

CAMBRIDGE is sharply divided between rich and poor. There is a big concentration of wealth at one extreme, but large numbers of homeless people at the other. Campaigners say Wintercomfort and Ruth Wyner made enemies among the Cambridgeshire police by highlighting the problem of homelessness. She was often in the media and had won 400,000 of lottery funding to turn a disused space under a road bridge into an innovative shelter.

Campaigners suspect that, whatever the precise motives for prosecuting Ruth and John, some powerful figures in Cambridge are very happy with the outcome.

Back this campaign

BOTH families have lost a breadwinner. They face a bitter battle to make ends meet and get their loved ones out of prison. The level of support the families have received is all that has kept their heads above water.

The campaign has already drawn support from a cross-section of people in Cambridge. Writer Alexander Masters chairs the Cambridge Two Action Committee. “We’ve got people from ex-prisoners to the bursar of St John’s College at the university offering help,” he says.

“None of us have campaigned over anything like this before. But we are going flat out to get Ruth and John released. We got nearly 1,000 signatures on a petition in Cambridge on Saturday.” As he spoke his answerphone picked up another call from someone wanting to join the campaign.

There are many ways you can help:

  • The campaign and the families desperately need money. Get donations from your trade union, student union or community organisation.

Make cheques payable to The Overstream Support Fund.

  • Information, posters, petitions and leaflets are available from the campaign. Write c/o 6 Hertford Street, Cambridge CB4 3AG. You can also write to Ruth and John care of the same address.
  • Pass resolutions calling for the release of Ruth and John. Write to your local MP and to home secretary Jack Straw.
  • For speakers from the campaign phone/fax 01223 513 033.

Thousands of people work in hostels and social service departments. This issue particularly affects them.

Sentence shattered faith in the courts

FRIENDS, COLLEAGUES and users of the Wintercomfort centre can provide volumes of testimony to the fundamentally decent characters of Ruth and John.

  • RUTH WYNER has worked providing help for homeless people for 20 years.

She started working with homeless people after her brother had a nervous breakdown, became homeless and ended up dying in a hostel. She has been on the executive of the National Homelessness Alliance, which links housing charities such as Shelter across Britain.

As the director of Wintercomfort, the only day centre for the homeless in south Cambridgeshire, she helped organise food, healthcare, housing and jobs advice, and resettlement for between 60 and 150 people every day.

Like many people running small charities, she could have moved into a much better paid job working for a profit making company.

But Ruth stayed doing a job which helps people. So too did her husband, Gordon, who also works with homeless people.

He told Socialist Worker, “The government’s homelessness tsar says she wants people off the streets and in shelters. That is precisely what Wintercomfort does. We are supposed to have a caring, sharing Labour government. Yet Ruth and John have been sent to prison for the amount of time many people who commit violent crimes get. It’s devastating.”

Ruth is already planning to set up a counselling and advice group in jail to help other prisoners.

  • JOHN BROCK gave up his profession as a sign writer to work with homeless people and was the manager of Wintercomfort.

His wife, Louise, runs a nursery. She told Socialist Worker, “This has just shattered my faith in the justice system. We have never had so much as a parking ticket before. I did not even get a chance to say goodbye to John when he was sentenced on 17 December. One of our lawyers said that the judge gave sentences of four years and above because you have to serve at least two thirds of that time. You only serve half the time for anything under four years. That is just incredibly vindictive.”

John and Louise have two sons, aged ten and 16. John’s father, aged 84 is registered blind. His mother is aged 78. The family tried to make the best of Christmas without John.

Ruth and Gordon have a daughter, aged 16, and a son, Joel, aged 22. Joel shouted out, “You scum!” at Judge Haworth when he announced sentence. The judge had Joel arrested and threatened to jail him unless he apologised.

Judge boast

JUDGE JONATHAN Haworth could not wait for the court hearing to announce the vicious sentences on Ruth and John. One Cambridge lawyer told the Observer that Haworth bragged at a party days before the official sentencing that he planned to jail the two. The lawyer said, “For the first time in my life I felt ashamed to be a lawyer. I know the judge, the prosecutors and the police, and I am ashamed for them and of them. Cambridge has become like a rotten small town in the Deep South in the United States of America.”

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