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'Victimisation Continues' by John Bowden, long-term radical prisoner (UK)

From a comrade of Brighton ABC:

The statutory role and duty of the Parole Board in relation to reviewing the continued imprisonment of those prisoners serving indeterminate or life sentences and who remain in jail far beyond the length of time originally recommended by the courts in “the interest of retribution” is critically important if an abuse of executive power in the form of unlawful detention is to be prevented.

As a system of punishment indeterminate sentences, when not the courts but the prison system and what is in effect a hidden state decide when or if a prisoner is ever to be released, is inherently vulnerable to abuse, especially when right-wing politicians and an increasingly brutal prison system have a determining influence on how long such prisoners are detained. When the state itself assumes the power to decide how long someone should remain in jail then the concept of “public protection” is often used to justify what is in reality arbitrary and unlawful imprisonment.

The Parole Board exists, supposedly, as a quasi-judicial influence to prevent such an abuse of power and objectively assess the continuing public risk of indeterminately sentenced prisoners; in that regard the Parole Board, a state appointed body, has failed miserably and is clearly unfit for purpose.

An increasingly growing number of “post-tariff” lifers (prisoners who remain imprisoned long beyond the length of time originally stipulated by the judiciary) numbering thousands continue to be warehoused in the prison system not because they represent a genuine risk or threat to the community but rather because they are either hostages to an increasingly repressive state or because of their “difficult relationship” with a prison system becoming ever more
punitive and inhuman. And the Parole Board colludes in their unlawful imprisonment by simply rubber-stamping and thereby legitimising their imprisonment. A recently retired chairperson of the Parole Board has now criticised the board for what he described as it’s routine inclination to deny the release of life sentence prisoners thereby creating a prison overcrowding problem that would eventually and inevitably find expression in despair and anger-fuelled unrest.

In mid-November 2013 the Parole Board delivered it’s judgement on my continued detention after 32 years in jail. Significantly, there was no claim that I represented a risk to the community or hadn’t changed fundamentally after three decades in prison; the panel at my hearing on the 6th November described me as an “articulate and intelligent man” whose life prior to imprisonment “was dominated by a criminal sub-culture of violence. That person no longer exists.

You discovered a cause in prison for which you were willing to fight, namely against injustice, or what you perceived to be injustice, in the penal system. Your cause was on the part of all prisoners, not just yourself. This has caused you to be labelled as militant or subversive, and your complaints have made you a target of the prison system, or so you believe”. The judgement then focuses it’s criticism on the prison authorities and “makes the observation that it is alarmed that the conclusions of an earlier parole hearing in 2011 (that I be moved to an open jail in preparation for release) were so easily and quickly brushed aside”. It also condemns the prison system for manufacturing justifications to keep me confined in maximum-security conditions, like deciding I required a lengthy “violence prevention” behaviour-modification programme, and then ignoring a request from the Parole Board for an explanation as to exactly why I required such a programme, thereby treating the authority of the board with obvious contempt. The judgement describes it in the following way: “Unsurprisingly you were taken aback by the decision of the management and psychology dept at Shotts prison that you would be required to complete a violence prevention programme as a condition for your transfer to less secure conditions.

As a result of that decision the Parole Board issued a direction requiring the psychology dept at Shotts jail to provide information as to who attended the meeting that decided you required such a programme and what risk assessment tools were used to assess you for such a programme. The information subsequently provided to the board seems not to comply except in perhaps very superficial terms with that direction. The persons who attended the meeting that decided you must complete the programme are not identified, except for Marc Kozlowski, a senior psychologist at Shotts jail, who chaired the meeting. At your parole hearing in November of 2013 he told the panel that he had not recommended the programme but the decision had emerged from the meeting. Marc Kozlowski was unable to give any cogent evidence upon which the meeting had made it’s decision. You could be forgiven for thinking it was rather an arbitrary and illogical decision. So, whilst this Parole Board would not presume to criticise the Scottish Prison Service, looking at this decision from your point of view your anticipated progress towards release has been brought to a halt by a process which seems to lack any transparency that you must do a programme for which there is little or no supporting evidence provided. Combined with the deeply unsatisfactory compliance by the Scottish Prison Service with the direction from the Parole Board concerning this matter it is not surprising that you are dispirited and angry”. And then the judgement turns it’s fire on me, criticising me for having the temerity to complain, justified or not, about my treatment when it was clearly not my place as a mere prisoner to do so. This disapproval of my tendency to complain permeates the whole judgement and is clearly flagged-up as a risk factor; “You have set your cause of release back by your intransigence, no matter how superficially justified and understandable your complaints”, “The Board might have some sympathy with you because of the lack of progress by the prison system in your case, the fact remains, however, that as a life sentence prisoner you have to accept that the prison system has operational control over you. You may or may not like the decisions that are taken but you have no realistic alternative but to accept them. Had you thought of yourself and prioritised your quest for freedom without seeking to make an issue of it you could have completed the violence prevention programme by now whether you felt you needed it or not”. So although the decision that I required a violence-prevention programme “lacked transparency and nobody outside the process knows on what basis and upon what evidence the decision was based” (the words of the Parole Board in their judgement) I should nevertheless have viewed the programme as an obedience test to be passed as an absolute condition of my progression towards my eventual elrease. The judgement continues in such a way: “You seem to have lost sight of the fact that you need to re-establish trust and have a working relationship with those supervising you”, “things have now reached a nadir and something will have to change, probably on both sides, but you must remember that you have the greater responsibility in that regard. If you are really concerned about your freedom you must think of what is best and most productive for you”, as opposed to what is right and just.

So although the board have clearly identified an abuse of power on the part of the administration at Shotts prison in manufacturing dubious justifications for obstructing a recommendation made over two years ago that I be transferred to an open prison, by complaining I must bear the responsibility and consequences for that abuse of power.

If my tendency to complain about my treatment makes my continued imprisonment self-afflicted then my use of the internet through political supporters on the outside renders me a lost cause completely in terms of the sympathy of the Parole Board, who view such an activity in highlighting abuses of power by the system the worst crime of all on my part and the most damning “risk-factor” of all preventing my release. So instead of keeping my head firmly down and conforming unquestioningly, no matter how wrong and unfair my treatment, I had sought to highlight it and place it in the wider political context of prison/state abuse of power – something a life sentence prisoner wholly dependent on the state for a release date simply should not do. The Board then tries to undermine the integrity of my use of the internet and the information I have placed on it.

Part of the evidence presented against my release was a dossier given to the Parole Board by a community-based Criminal Justice Social Worker, Brendan Barnett, which contained downloaded articles of mine from various anarchist and radical websites describing abuses of power by system-hired individuals like Barnett. The Board responded to the articles thus: “Your lawyer in her finale submission to the Parole Board seemed to be of the view that because not many questions had been asked about you your use of the internet it was improper to refer to it. With great respect, the articles were in the Parole dossier for all to see and read and their contents speaks for itself”. “The Parole Board simply makes the point, in relation to material placed on the internet, that whilst nobody should be stopped from, and indeed nobody must be prevented from exercising his or her right to criticise judgements with which he or she disagrees, that must be within limits imposed by the law of libel and should not be inflammatory. Your articles are based on the view that you have formed of the prison system and how it is determined by hook or crook to prevent your release. The complaints you made against individuals in the prison and criminal justice system were investigated by complaint procedures in those systems and found to be wanting. This you regard as a case of closing of ranks by the prison and criminal justice system”. Any prisoner who has ever attempted to access internal prison complaint procedures as a means of achieving justice quickly learns the futility of expecting prison staff to investigate one another with anything approaching credibility, despite what a middle-class Parole Board might imagine.

Brendan Barnett, the criminal justice system social worker employed by Edinburgh City Council, who had so assiduously downloaded and presented to the Parole Board a dossier of my articles played a pivotal role in preventing my release, exploiting his position as the person charged with the critically important responsibility of “supervising” me in the community should I be released. Barnett’s priorities in terms of what sort of information the Parole Board should be provided with when considering my release became apparent at the parole hearing. He produced one of my articles (Neo-Liberalism and Prisons) that he said he had downloaded the previous evening and insisted he be permitted to read it to the parole panel because it reflected, he claimed, my absolute and total antipathy regarding the penal-like supervision of ex-prisoners in the community. The parole judgement describes the attempt of the panel to elicit from Barnett anything resembling an actual social worker report containing a plan for my post-release supervision: “Mr Barnett, for some reason, had not completed a structured risk-assessment plan (despite having two years in which to do it) but in an effort to be helpful had drafted a rough plan. Th panel were not shown this and in any event are not overly impressed by “rough guides” done on the back of an envelope”. Barnett had, however, been extremely efficient in other ways. Asked by the Parole Board in 2011 to put in place a post-release supervision plan that would include accommodation, Barnett persuaded Edinburgh City Council, his employer, to refuse me any form of accommodation on the grounds that I had never been a legal resident of that city; he persuaded the management committee of the only probation hostel in Edinburgh to refuse me a place on the grounds that I might write negative articles about the hostel and place them on the internet; he wrote to Scottish Prison Service H.Q. and asked them to organise my transfer to the English Prison System on the grounds that I had neither family or friends in Scotland, which he knew to be untrue. He had throughout all of this closely “liaised” with a senior prison officer at Shotts prison who, coincidentally or not, was manager of the jail’s psychology programmes dept) and was clearly determined to co-ordinate the attempt to keep me in prison. When asked directly by the Parole Board if he considered it safe to release me he replied, “Definitely not”, and added that if ever I was released it must only be under the most stringent and repressive conditions: placed into a “closely supervised” hostel, made subject to curfews, electronically tagged, monitored by an entire team of social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and police, and immediately recalled to jail if suspected of being associated with “pro-criminal elements or political activists”. The implied message was obvious: for both financial and practical reasons it would be more convenient just to keep me locked-up. Despite it’s mild criticism of Barnett’s inability to write a structured and proper post-release management plan for me, as opposed to scribbling something on the back on an envelope, the Parole Board treated Barnett and his “evidence” most respectfully, despite it’s obvious discomfort that two years earlier he had written bizarre and obvious lies in a report to the board about me. In that report he changed completely the narrative of my original crime, despite obviously having read police and judicial records and reports, and claimed that what had been a senseless and drunken killing by three petty-criminals of another individual on the margins of South London society, had in fact been a crime motivated by racism and homophobia; which is somewhat odd considering that the defendants were first and second generation Irishmen and the victim was a white heterosexual second-generation Irishman. Worst still, Barnett claimed that in his summing up the trail judge had explicitly acknowledged the racist, homophobic dimension to the offence; the transcript of the judges summing-up revealed nothing of the kind.

Barnett had invented the story and committed it to an official parole report. This begs the question of how or why someone who works for an organisation like Edinburgh Criminal Justices could possibly imagine there wouldn’t be obvious consequences to writing such obvious and easily provable lies? I would soon discover the basis of Barnett’s confidence. I would spend two years pursuing my complaint against Barnett’s lies at every level of Edinburgh City Council and at each turn was confronted by disinterest, contempt and an impenetrable closing of ranks. Finally my complaint was pursued to the highest level of the council at the city chambers, who informed me their social work complaints committee was currently in the process of being “re-organised” and they would give no time scale for when my complaint might be heard. I’ve heard nothing from them since. The parole judgement rather guardedly deals with Barnett’s lies in the following way: “Brendan Barnett produced a report that you found offensive. He wrote that your crime was motivated by racism and homophobia. The simplest way of dealing with this would have been to approach Mr Barnett. If you were not satisfied with his response you could have taken it further. Instead you resorted to the internet – the published articles appear in the dossier and accuse Mr Barnett of telling blatant lies to sabotage your release”. “You used the internet to voice your strident opinions and vent your spleen against Mr Barnett.

Unsurprisingly, he thought you were unsupervisable at the moment”. Not a single word about the glaringly obvious lies in Barnett’s report, not a question about something that went right to the heart of Barnett’s integrity, or lack of it. Yet again, they’re fire is focused on me for having the temerity to complain and seek to expose Barnett’s lies. Indeed, Barnett is treated as the victim in all this: “The vitriolic personal attacks on people like Mr Barnett are both unpleasant and worrying for their families and their future”. And then the implied threat: “Any future social worker who now knows that you will resort to common abuse and using the internet to air complaints will think long and hard before accepting the job of trying to supervise you.

Then the judgement makes a remarkable contradiction of fact. It accuses me of wrongly informing prison management that in 2011 the Parole Board had favoured my transfer back to an open prison and had asked the prison system to organise it. The current judgement says I had made an “error” because the Parole Board “has no power to interfere or seek to interfere in prison operational matters, such as a transfer to open conditions, which are exclusively for the Scottish Prison system”. This is an incredible claim to make considering that earlier in the same judgement the board had accused the Scottish Prison System of simply “brushing aside” the board’s request in 2011 that I be transferred to an open prison. Obviously conscious of it’s sudden shift of position the Board decides to put the matter to bed by concluding “Unfortunately of course an open jail is not an option at the moment, nor is it likely to be in the future if both sides to this impasse remain obdurate in their stances”. It then effectively washes it’s hands of the situation by making no recommendations regarding a progression plan for me, nor does it even give a time when my sentence would next be reviewed. It simply leaves it to the prison system to decided when I have been sufficiently
tamed in thought and attitude to be wheeled before them again.

Britain currently has a greater population of life sentence prisoners than all the other European countries combined and a prison population that in terms of sentence length now resembles the U.S. Thousands of prisoners serving indeterminate sentences (not all for serious offences of violence) are detained long beyond the “retribution” part of their sentence, or “tariff”, usually because of the inability of the prison system to “process” such a dramatically increased population of lifers; the popularist “Indefinite Detention for Public Protection” (“two strikes and you’re out”) law resulted in a massive growth in the population of life sentence prisoners, now numbering some 13000. Whilst the current Parole Board mentality prevails, informed and influenced as it is by an increasingly punitive and intolerant political climate, the proportion of prisoners with little realistic hope of release will continue to increase and fester, and combined with a hardening of repression in prison as right-wing Justice Secretary Chris Grayling “gets tough” with prisoners, the ingredients are being sown for serious and major unrest within the prison system. The Parole Board has much to thank itself for.

John Bowden
HMP Shotts
January 2014

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This entry was posted on Friday, January 10th, 2014 at 3:07 pm and is filed under Prison Struggle.