In Memory of Sister Sarah Clarke: the Joan of Arc of British prisons


by Hans Sherrer

(June 26, 2002)


Sister Sarah Clarke, one of Great Britain's most well known activists opposing the imprisonment of innocent men and women, died on February 4, 2002.


            Sister Sarah Clarke, a heroine in the struggle to free innocent men and women in Great Britain, died in London on February 4, 2002. She was 82.

            Paddy Joe Hill, one of the Birmingham Six she helped free in 1991, described her as “the Joan of Arc of the prisons.” That is a remarkable comparison considering Mark Twain, a Joan of Arc biographer wrote, “she is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”

            Sarah Clarke began her life as a prison activist at the age of 50. She embarked on her more than three decades of effort on behalf of political and nonpolitical prisoners after attending a civil rights meeting in 1970. It was the first politically oriented meeting she had attended in her life. Her prisoner related work from then on epitomized the truism that judges rarely throw their hands up in dismay when presented with evidence of a person's innocence and order that they be released forthwith. Quite to the contrary, an innocent man or woman walking out the front door of a prison or courthouse is the culmination of an enormous amount of time and effort by people who worked behind the scenes to make it happen.

            Yet, the work of exonerating an innocent person takes more than years of tedious work digging up more and more evidence of a conviction being rooting in such things as a police frame-up, perjured testimony, concealment of exculpatory evidence by prosecutors or defense lawyer bumbling. Just as important is maintaining the spirits of a defendant and his or her layperson and legal counsel supporters during the time it takes to accomplish a person's release.

            That is where Sister Clarke excelled. During her more than three decades of activism Sister Clarke provided vital behind the scene support for numerous wrongly convicted men and women in British prisons. Among the people she aided were the Maguire Seven, the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. Americans are most familiar with the Guildford Four because of Daniel Day Lewis' stirring portrayal of wrongly convicted and imprisoned Gerry Conlin in the 1993 movie: In the Name of the Father. (See Justice Denied movie review, Vol. 2, Issue 4). Sister Clarke is credited with being one of the key people who kept hope alive for the Guildford Four during the time before their case garnered international publicity as a travesty of justice.

            Due to the difficulties of people in Ireland visiting loved ones in British prisons, Sister Clarke was invaluable in aiding them to do so. She regularly picked up friends and family members arriving in England, found them lodging, and escorted them to the prison. It was said that when she accompanied prison visitors she wouldn't let any bureaucratic obstruction stand in the way of them seeing a prisoner.

            There is no question that Sister Clarke was a “hands on” activist who did her remarkable humanitarian work on a shoestring budget. One prisoner she visited in the 1970s wrote that her hands were oily when she arrived, because she had to repair her car that had broken down on the way to the prison.

            Sister Clarke's efforts on behalf of imprisoned people epitomized the fortitude it takes to act on one's beliefs in an unpopular cause, because her actions were often at odds with her religious peers and prison officials.

            Billy Power, another one of the Birmingham Six wrote about her:


“Sister Sarah was the thorn in the side of every prison Governor in the country. She was Persona Non Grata in all the Category A prisons simply because she refused to bow down to the terrible regimes that were run within the Prison system in the 1970's and 1980's, and fought for prisoners right during that period. The authorities hated Sister Sarah, for her tremendous work for prisoner's right.”


"If Sister Sarah was to be tried for being a Christian, the overwhelming evidence would lead to her conviction. Words can not express the loss we feel at the death of Sister Sarah."


            Sister Clarke's autobiography, published in 1995, summed up her feelings after dealing with the British judicial and prison system for a quarter of a century: No Faith in the System.

            Described as gutsy, Sister Clarke’s doggedness may have simply been a byproduct of her living her beliefs. She didn't take the path of simply giving lip service to her professed beliefs when made aware of injustices inflicted on men and women by the British legal and prison system.

       Men and women unfairly treated or innocent are entombed in the prisons of every country. So the sense of justice and fair play embodied in Sister Clarke’s more than three decade long struggle to aid prisoners resonates to compassionate people faced with similar problems in their native land. There is not just a need, but a constant shortage of people who exhibit Sister Clarke's willingness to act in the face of ostracism and disappointment in the pursuit of doing what is right. The world was a bit more humane while Sister Clarke was alive, and so her death is a loss for even those people who didn’t have the privilege of having known her.




“In memory, Sister Sarah Clarke, courageous and unsung heroine of the long and difficult campaign to clear the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six and the Maguire Seven - the notorious miscarriages of justice cases that disgraced the British system of criminal justice and wrecked the lives of so many innocent people,” Miscarriages of Justice UK website at:


“I was in prison and you came to visit me: Sr. Sarah Clarke dies,” The Irish People Newspaper – NORAID online:


“When British Justice Failed,” Kevin Toolis, NY Times, February 25, 1990 at 32.


“Sister Sarah Clarke: A thirst for justice and persistence,” A tribute by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, February 2002,


“Saint Joan of Arc,” in “The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories,” Mark Twain, Harper and Brothers, 1906. At: