Adele's story

Article 3 - Prohibition of torture, and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

'I was unable to use the toilet or sleep in the bed,' says Adele Matthew. 'I try not to think about what happened because if I do I get very upset.' Adele is disabled woman who used Article 3 of the Human Rights Act in a landmark case regarding her treatment in police custody and in prison.

Adele uses a wheelchair; due to damage by the drug Thalidomide she was born with shortened arms and legs. She also has kidney problems. She was sent to prison in 1995, after she was taken to county court over a minor debt issue. During the case, she refused to answer questions about her financial position, and was sentenced to seven days in custody for contempt of court.

'I was sitting in my own faeces and urine in a wheelchair. No-one should be made to go through that experience'

As it was not possible to take Adele to prison until the next day, she spent the night in a cell at Lincoln Police Station. The cell contained a wooden bed and a mattress but was not specially adapted for a disabled person. As a result, she was forced to sleep in her wheelchair and was unable to use the toilet. The emergency buttons and light switches in the cell were also out of her reach.

The police custody record showed that during the night, Adele complained of the cold every half hour, a serious problem for someone with recurring kidney problems. After she made several complaints, a doctor was called who noted Adele could not use the bed and could not leave her wheelchair. The doctor also said the cell was too cold and officers were told the facilities were not adapted to the needs of a disabled person. Despite the doctor’s comments, no action was taken and Adele remained in the cell overnight.

The following day, Adele was moved to New Hall Women's Prison, Wakefield, where she was detained in the prison’s Health Care Centre until the afternoon of 23 January 1995. Once again she had difficulty when using the toilet in her cell and felt humiliated when male prison officers were required to lift her on and off the toilet.

'I was sitting in my own faeces and urine in a wheelchair. No-one should be made to go through that experience,' she says.

By the time of her release, Adele was suffering from health problems which continued for ten weeks after she was released. On 30 January 1995, she consulted solicitors with a view to bringing an action in negligence against the Home Office.

On 10 July 2001, the European Court of Human Rights found in Adele’s favour and said there had been a violation of Article 3. The court said that to detain a severely disabled person in conditions where she is dangerously cold, risks developing sores because her bed is too hard or unreachable, and is unable to go to the toilet or keep clean without the greatest of difficulty, constitutes degrading treatment.

The Human Rights Act helped me and I hope it makes a huge difference for other disabled people.

Adele says: 'I was very pleased at the decision but I should not have been sent to prison for such a minor offence.... The Human Rights Act helped me and I hope it makes a huge difference for other disabled people.' 

Last Updated: 28 Apr 2014