Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How to Serve 30 Years

A few people have wondered how it is I have served thirty years; and why I am 20 years past my tariff.

Let's put aside the obvious concern - that I am some rabid, unstable creature that has to be fed at the end of a long stick. I'm remarkably normal, given the givens. My dossier is remarkably free of violence, considering the violent environment I have grown up in.

The explanation for my continued detention is far more subtle and complicated. It would help at this point to understand that there is a legal test for releasing Lifers, the 'Benson - Bradley test'. The Parole Board has to be satisfied that I pose 'no more than a minimal risk to life or limb. However, how that assessment is made is a process of alchemy.

But back to the beginning. It was a given that I would serve 10 years, regardless of anything I did. That period was my tariff -the period to be served for retribution and deterrence. It is the next 20 years that need some explaining - and I can only give you my version.

In my eighth year I had a strange conversation with the Lifer Governor. Strange, because he told me things and this was a period where we were told nothing. Until the early 1990's, we were not allowed to read staff reports on us, and we were not shown the content of Parole answers. We couldn't challenge anything said about us, and we were never told what we needed to do in order to gain release. Serving a life sentence then was an exercise in navigating a maze in the dark.

This Governor shed some light on my situation, reading out my 'career plan'. Yup, life sentences are regarded as being a career. Who knew? My career plan projected that I would serve some 16 years. Such was the secrecy and arrogance of the Home Office in those days that adding a few years to my sentence was neither here nor there.

By coincidence, it was at my 15 year mark that the Parole Board began recommending that I be moved to open prison, prior to being released. And that was the point when Home Secretaries began ignoring those recommendations. That first time was a strange moment, having a real prospect of release within sight. The Home Office refused to send me to open, citing my occasional bouts of depression as their reason.

I reacted badly. Five years over tariff, having done enough to please the Parole Board, and some politician was keeping me in prison on a pathetic reason. So I attempted what we call self-release’ - an escape. It was more to signal my discontent that a genuine run for Rio, and saw me embedded in a compost heap. A story for another day.

Four times the Parole Board recommended I be moved to open prison. Four times a politician refused, on the flimsiest of excuses - a spliff here, an argument there. That was 10 years accounted for and wasted. Whilst it is widely acknowledged that I am a 'difficult prisoner, it is equally accepted that I am not a violent one. My "issues' relate to resisting abuses of authority and having a big mouth. It is not for me, then, to explain away that wasted decade, it is for the Minister.

On their fifth attempt, the Parole Board did get me to open. I'd served 25 years at this point. If their first recommendation hadn't been nobbled by the Minister, I would have been released around the 17 year mark. Ho-hum.

My time in open lasted a year, and then I was returned to closed (this prison). Having skipped over the details of the first 26 years, it is from this point on that detail would help you to understand the web that enmeshes Lifers.

I arrived at Open full of positive hopes, determined to put in place the bedrock for my future on release. I had a Plan. Not just a plan, but one with a capital P. My university was waiting to accept me to begin my PhD; another university was willing to accept me to undertake voluntary work in their library; my home leave address was a sitting MP; and I was making contacts with the aim of gaining training in mediation.

Not a bad plan, considering that 50% of Lifers in the community are unemployed. It covered at least two prospective avenues for employment, social support and housing - all the key elements in a stable life. When I presented this to the relevant manager at open, he looked down the boardroom table and dismissed it: "we don't care." That's when I knew I was in trouble.

Management vacillated back and forth as I shuttled between offices, attempting to negotiate a sensible way forward. All I wanted was a chance. Out of sheer frustration, I began to refuse to undertake some 'voluntary' activities, hoping to persuade managers to note my distress.

It partly worked. Eleven months after arriving, a lifer manager finally agreed to 'consider' my proposals, particularly the PhD. This positive move was instantly undermined by his insistence that I “jot the research proposal on the back of an envelope”. I tried to explain that research proposals are a tad more complex than that, but he just couldn't appreciate my point. Stalemate.

Two weeks later I was 'kidnapped' and dumped in my current location. The official reason was that I 'failed to comply with the regime'. It wasn't suggested I posed a risk, or was intending to abscond; merely attempting to fight my own corner to build a life on release was a sufficient crime. I'm far from alone - about half this prison are rejects from that open prison.

As is the procedure, I was then referred back to the Parole Board to consider whether I should return to open. It took a year to arrange this. None of the reports from staff suggested I posed a risk or that I was unsuitable to return to open prison. In the normal course of events, I would have been given an earful for being 'difficult and sent on my way. Alas, this hearing before the Parole Board took place just after the Anthony Rice scandal. Rice was a lifer who had been released, only to commit further very serious offences. The report into these events condemned all involved, including the Parole Board, for their poor decision making. I walked into a hearing just as the Board had adopted their most conservative outlook in a generation.

Bear in mind that the Board had consistently recommended I move to open for a decade; and that all that had changed was my falling out with managers. I was stunned, then, to receive a 6 page parole answer that verged on the abusive, and which concluded that I may be a psychopath. Either this Board was more perceptive than anybody else who had dealt with me in the previous 27 years, or they were paralysed by the Rice case and were desperate not to take any chance that may backfire. In the 18 months following Rice, the percentage of lifers sent to open collapsed. The Lifers hadn't changed; all that was different was the attitude of the Board.

Nonetheless, I was stuffed, stranded back in closed conditions for a raft of psychological assessments. The date for my next Parole Board hearing was set at 18 months ahead. This prison assured me that it had the resources to conduct the assessments needed to address the psychopath issue.

They lied. They had no money for the assessments and I had to arrange them through my solicitor. My parole hearing date slid back another year because of this.

Last May, my Parole Board sat again. They accepted that, whilst being a generally arrogant git, I wasn't a psychopath nor was it claimed that I pose a risk of reoffending. That I'm a pain in the arse is a given, always ready to argue the toss. But no one argues this makes me a risk, a point this Board made in their latest answer - They slapped down the opinion of the Ministry of Justice to that effect: "The panel did not lightly disregard the opinion of the Secretary of State. However, they concluded that [his] view persisted in the same error of equating an uncooperative and challenging attitude with the future risk of violent offending..."

To return to where I began, then, with the legal test for release: that I pose no more than a minimal risk to life or limb. Being irritating doesn't - shouldn't - come into the mix. Why, then, didn't that Parole Board order my release instead of recommending I return to Open? In their own words:

"In summary, having balanced your interests in sentence progression against the interests of public protection, the panel was satisfied that sufficient evidence exists that your risk of violent offending has been reduced to a level such it is safely manageable in open prison conditions. The panel did not consider that sufficient evidence of risk reduction exists to enable them to make a direction that you be released; there is a necessity, in the panel's view (in the interests of public protection), for there to be a period of testing and gradual reintegration into the community before release."

Untangle that tortured English and jargon and it boils down to the fact that they want me to spend a period in Open prison in order to see if I've been cabbaged by all the years they have kept me inside. We agree to disagree on that one.

The Ministry of Justice accepted this recommendation and set the date for my next Parole Board hearing as next summer, after 12 months in Open. That would have seen me released...

Alas, my life never goes that easily. No sooner had the Ministry spoken than I was confronted with fresh misdemeanours - they allege that two years ago, I had a relationship with one of the civilian staff, and that repossessed a mobile phone for a brief period. And so the Ministry have suspended my move to Open, and referred me back to the Parole Board for their advice as to whether I should still be progressed.

What do you think?

34 comments:

  1. Thanks for clarifying. As I had wondered.

    Is there no legal recourse for you, a formal challenge that can be made?

    I am guessing that there is not otherwise you would have, but it seems odd that in essense you can keep any prisoner in prison after their term is up just by doing a few admin bollocks.

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  2. It seems to this lay observer that you have a prima facie case over time that the prison system has been actively and unreasonably hostile to your release in order to frustrate the lawful activities of the parole board. I would also guess that there is no legal basis for progressing this complain or your brief would have done so. I would also guess that doing so would be deeply counterproductive given their attitude to you.

    I think we should start a petition on the number 10 site asking for a judicial review of your situation and treatment.

    What do others think?

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  3. Have you ever read Kafka's The Trial?

    Apart from that I would suggest that your previous behaviour, including the offence itself, is conclusive proof from the little you have told us here that you are not a psychopath.

    I am not educated in the brain, but I am currently reading a book about the involvement of emotion in decision-making. One of the points it makes is that psychopaths are very unemotional, especially having undeveloped emotional pathways to help decisions.

    The very facts they used to gaol you in the first place, then to keep you there, should have told anyone who knew anything about psychopaths that you are not one. So how come someone felt qualified to suggest that you are, without being able to state categorically that you are not? Are these people acting beyond their remit, or are they incompetent?

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  4. I'm in agreement with Muscleguy and may I add that Ben's emotional and intellectual resilience in the matter of his incarcaration (for what now must be clearly understood by all the civilised communities of the world as horribly cruel and unusual punishment for a child) - I can only fear for Ben because the Prison Service has by now demonstrated to itself that it is populated with cruel and unusual participants.

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  5. There are similarities with Kafka's The Trial.

    I too was misdiagnosed by a non psychiatrist as being a psychopath. 23 years later I was tested and found not to be a psychopath. I have Asperger's Syndrome.

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  6. Well, it's a good job I have a padded keyboard because I'm banging my forehead on it in sheer frustration for you! What is it they say? 'To err is human but to really screw things up takes a civil servant'.

    I agree with Muscleguy too. Petition time, methinks.

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  7. Prisons are very confined spaces, and small things can become very big things to a prisoner. Staff should always keep a promise made to a prisoner. If they break their word, it can cause resentment to build up in prisoners. Keeping their word shows integrity. If one of the purposes of prison is rehabilitation, then staff breaking their word goes against that purpose.

    I think what is happening here is that they are trying to humiliate you, and humiliation is part of the punishment process. Social beings feel humiliation, its what keeps us on the straight and narrow, however I think as the others do above that they have over stepped their remit and there ought to be some way of calling them to account.

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  8. I read your story in the Guardian today. I have now read this blog. I am appalled at your treatment I would say every normal persons understanding of what constitutes human rights and decent respect for other human beings have been abused. You probably should never have been found guilty for murder. In many countries a 14 year old would not in this situation have been allowed to put that plea in I am sure. However I obviously dont know the full facts about what happened. It sounds like your crime as a 14 year old boy was never treated in the way it should have been. Focusing on more recent events and equally appalling ones,It seems that the history of your experience in prison is equally abusive and dreadful and I feel angry that the country I live in has treated you this way. I am sure it is not an isolated case but there cannot be anything much worse that what this abuse of our system in prison has done to you. I am so sorry and I believe you have more than many times made up for what happened(I expect you are aware of that -sorry if it sounds patronising). You should do everything to get yourself released and campaign from outside for prisoners and chidrens rights. I am sure that from outside prison you would have a more effective impact. You also deserve to forgive yourself( I am sure you have)and give yourself a break.
    Very good luck I am going to keep reading your blog and decide if there is anything I can do.

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  9. Aren't you serving a life sentence? No politician has the right to keep you in past your sentence end date... so if you're still in prison I can only assume that's because you were sentenced to LIFE.

    I'm from overseas so haven't seen the full story... I note you don't go in to the effects your actions had on your victims...

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  10. While I do not know what it is like I feel for you. The truth is that people do not really care. Bureaucracy's are worse. Civilisation has a long way to go.

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  11. I can remember in the late 60's the book One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest being published. I can remember having to write an essay on the book subject and this was before the film based on the book was made. From memory I had to cover the role of the institution and what has happened to you seems to me to fit into my interpretation of my reading.

    Within any institution particularly a closed one such as a prison, individualism may be accepted in theory but not in practice. Later in life I underwent a further education course and was told that mature individuals with life experience were welcomed for their views. What a laugh - if you know more than your tutors - in your case more than those employed to monitor you - you are an immediate threat. You also come over as an independent minded person given that you have been socialised in institutions. Institutions prefer people to acquiesce to rules etc - easier. If you don't your life can be made difficult. They have the power too.

    I know from reading the Guardian article that you have altruistic ideals in serving your fellow prisoners. This is admirable but regrettably it means that whilst this may stimulate you altruism and self interest often clash.

    I am delighted you challenged that ghastly label of being a psychopath. What happened to the person who labelled you? I hope at some time on release you write about your experiences - can you write a book on life licence(???)

    I do know that the Justice Secretary has to approve release of those serving life sentences and it is normal practice to follow the recommendation of the Parole Board. I know Jack Straw was criticised for overruling the parole board on Mr Biggs initial application. He stated at the time that he, as an elected politician had to represent the public view on release. Sadly on this occasion, he misread the public mood.

    On the misdeameanours and offences that you mention. Obviously you have make mistakes but surely this was inevitable given that you were very young when sentenced. We permit people to make mistakes as they mature. Further, I wonder about the effects of long term imprisonment in terms of decision making. After all, you do not have to make many and will make errors of judgement based on your inexperience. Escaping, possessing a mobile phone etc were not good decisions given your status. Understandable though even though it delayed your process for release.

    As to the comment above regarding a petition. I would want to know what Ben thinks about this? I also think it would be appropriate to get the Guardian to mention the petition (if Ben wants this) to ensure it is widely promulgated.

    Finally, I do not expect prison officers to always rise above well educated inmates particularly if they are constantly challenged. you must be a real pain Ben. I do however expect those in charge of prisons to have more enlightened views and indeed some understanding of someone who has spent so many years within a prison regime. I have to believe this - this week they stated they can not work with prisoners to assist them on sentences under 12 months. Surely they are not misleading me?

    The important thing to comment on is you sharing your situation - thank you for doing so and being so honest. I shall be watching your situation carefully particularly as it is costing me thousands of pounds to keep you in custody when you clearly do not present a risk to the community. Who knows what pressure us ordinary folks can bring to bear.

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  12. I read the Guardian article and your blog and am horrified by what you have been through.
    Surely you have served your time and being an awkward git is not an imprisoning offence otherwise we'd all be there. The prison decisions are not rational. Can no one see the bigger picture any more and see we need to rehabilitate prisoners as a priority. And since so much is based on what things cost in organisations; they are failing drastically in keeping someone in prison completely unnecessarily.
    I am saddened by a system that can/does behave like this.
    Yes, perhaps petitions are needed. Why aren't MP's lobbying harder on your case and other reforms?
    "Ironjaw Cannon"

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  13. Hi my name is katy, i am from Greece and i just became a “Follower” of your blog.
    Continue your great job Ben!

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  14. A petition on the No.10 site would be a start, but surely there is a decent human rights lawyer out there who will take this up, unpick it, and challenge it's legitimacy in court? At the very least a tv production company should cover this story in forensic detail. Meanwhile, Ben, try to stay sane, and peaceful. You have friends, and with the Guardian piece something should start moving towards getting your release. I keep thinking, christ if you are treated like this under Labour, what will it be like under Conservatives. Straydog.

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  15. Life Means Life, I recommend you check your facts before posting a comment. A 'life sentence' is 99 years, some of which will be served in prison and the remainder in the community. It is very rare for someone to be given a 'whole of life' sentence. In the vast majority of life sentence cases, a prisoner will be given a recommended 'tariff', in other words the number of years they must serve in prison before being considered for release. Unlike fixed term prisoners who will automatically be released at the end of their sentence (or in some cases before), there is no automatic release for lifers. The decision is at the recommendation of the Parole Board.

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  16. I am speechless after reading your Guardian interview. Straws record is a shambles. I call him 'Let Me Look Up Your Details Straw'. Having all of our details, you would think that he would know everything about you Ben. This is totally a lie, as you have been in their vindictive care for so long now.
    Reading about your life in their care, sounds like what you would expect in the USA, or even a third world nation. As a Gnostic, I would say that, if you are expecting some old guy in a rough beard to forgive you? You are going to be disappointed! It is our own Divine Soul, that forgives itself! That is no knew knowledge, but truly very ancient. Just think of it? It would take a real Divine Soul, to forgive itself. Just as it would be for a victim, victims family, or friend, to forgive from their Divine Soul. Hopefully we all have one of those. But I very much doubt if Straw has one of those. Speaking of which? The Government we have, are not in a very good situation. They look like being binned in May! So no help there then? The other lot? Well, They are not to be trusted either. I don't know if it could be possible, but our new highest court in the land, sounds about the correct way to go.
    You shall never give up Ben, as you are, who you are! Unlike the political lier's and traitors of late in our governing class!
    Take Care Ben. noggin48

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  17. Read your story in the Guardian Ben. This is such an obvious and above all vindictive abuse of the criminal "justice" system that it almost beggars belief. I will definately be writing to Jack Straw to demand an explanation of the appalling treatment that has been inflicted on you.

    Keep your head up and your heart strong, you have friends here in the outside world. Best wishes for an early release date,

    Ros, Exeter

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  18. I agree with Anonymous' comments with regards to you being able to do more from the outside, if you could give up your bouts of 'mouthing off' at Prison authority. I come from a different perspective, my father went to prison when I was nine years old and has re-offended four more times for the same crime. The humiliation extends beyond our prison walls, to the families of convicts and I fully support where you are coming from. However, the more media attention you get, the more likely to end up in a 'Shawshank Redemtion' scenario, where you scare the system so much, they'll never release you. Please, please give up the fight from inside. L

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  19. Wrote to Jack Straw yesterday asking for an explanation of your continued incarceration. It'll be interesting to see whether he responds and, if so, how.

    Head high Ben

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  20. Why aren't you just grateful that you weren't put to death as you might well have been by now had you lived in America?

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  21. old h, america doesnt execute 14 year olds.... What do you want of ben?

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  22. So basically you are still in prison because you are too stupid to keep your month shut! And who is to blame for that other than you?

    You are a murderer and many would suggest that you should never be released and that life should mean life.

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  23. And please stop with this nonsense about you getting a ten year sentence and them keeping you in for an additional 30 years. You got LIFE and the initial trial judge merely recommended that you serve at least 10 years. This doesn't equate to him saying you should serve ONLY 10 years.
    Why does the guy you murdered get released? Oh thats right he doesn't as he is DEAD!

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  24. Anon above, thank you for that penetrating analysis of bens legal and moral position. Your ignorance of the law is only exceeded by your cowardice! Please come again and entertain us...

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  25. I think there are some sick in the head on the Parole Boards! No, I know there is!

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  26. The only thing worse than the people in the prison system is those that RUN the system. The fact is that it is the incompetence of the system itself that creates the very conditions in which the abuse of the prisoners leads to the lack of rehabilitation of these same prisoners. Prison and continued prison time is counter productive in both the short term and long term for the majority of prisoners. Until the outside world advocates for real prison reform rather than knee jerk reactions to crime and punishment, there is little chance of change. Those who have the power to effect change have a disincentive to do so when their eyes are focused on how it looks to the voters next round of elections. I wish I had an answer for the problem, but having also been a victim of these incompetencies, there is no clear method for correction of these incompetencies on either side of the pond. I can only offer the sincerest hope that the system will correct itself enough to give you the chance that should already have occurred. Good Luck.

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  27. I just came across your story this afternoon. I have been looking for information about the name and circumstances of the 'friend' that you murdered Ben. There is nothing out there that I have been able to find. Have you ever been approached by - or tried contacting his family? How do they feel about your imprisonment? What you are going through sounds incredibly painful, and humiliating, and I as well as many others truly sympathise. Your continued imprisonment seems futile, at best. However, I would like to hear more of the 'victim' - and some honour and recognition of his short life. I know in many ways, it's not my business, but my interest in the quality of your life, and understanding and supporting your freedom is part of this. Sorry if that doesn't make too much sense - just rushing to type.

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    Replies
    1. May I suggest, you should spend a little more *time* reading, and less of the same 'rushing to write'.

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    2. Thank you for your response - perhaps it would be helpful if you explained what you didn't understand, and what, if anything, has offended you. I didn't rush to 'write', but to type (not my best skill). Your response and tone sounds very dismissive, and I'm sorry if I have misunderstood that, but I genuinely would like an answer to the question. I'm not sure who you are, but given that Ben has seriously studied psychology and reconciliation, and takes an astoundingly peaceful path of openness I'm sure he will give a more profoundly meaningful response, even if it is to say that he doesn't feel that it is his place or the place to discuss this. I don't know. Perhaps you do?

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    3. I expect you found my reply as ‘dismissive’ as I found your questions insensitive. I’m a no-body from nowhere special, but even I can work out that if Ben has/had written about the details you seem so interested in; I would be able to find them somewhere. Alternately, if I couldn’t, I’d assume that to be the intention of the author. I hope that helps.

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    4. Thank you for replying. It does help. I'm sorry that you felt my question was insensitive, but no hurt was intended. In the past few days I have read many of Ben's blogs and articles, and it seems to me that he invites open and honest discussion, and I can see that whatever is said on this subject is very sensitive. As I said in my initial post, I truly sympathise with his situation; the petty humiliations and spite for not accepting and conforming to the corruptions of the system is completely unacceptable.

      However, as he recognises himself, and continues to challenge, is that this is not just about him. It is something we all have to address, and it's difficult for us all; the question of retribution and justice. Ben's story has moved me, because he clearly has addressed, and continues to challenge himself, and I get the sense from his work that he has so much to contribute to all of us in this debate. It's not often that someone in his circumstances is able to articulate the experience from this perspective, and I believe he would be able to do that much more effectively if he were free. He was a child, and the little I have been able to find out after thorough searching is that it seemed it was an accident, and with the understanding of a 14 year old he immediately confessed to murder. My instinct is to feel that if he had not been in care, someone would have spoken up for him, and the outcome of the case would have been different. I grew up in care, so speak from experience - and I have seen, and felt, the prejudices and assumptions that the system itself enforces, let alone individuals.

      However, so did his friend, and for me this is complicated, and important, because it will be important to the society that needs to address this, and realise a better way forward. I hope that the intention of the author is that we do not question further, or do not look beyond his words to try and understand.

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  28. Thank you for replying. It does help. I'm sorry that you felt my question was insensitive, but no hurt was intended. In the past few days I have read many of Ben's blogs and articles, and it seems to me that he invites open and honest discussion, and I can see that whatever is said on this subject is very sensitive. As I said in my initial post, I truly sympathise with his situation; the petty humiliations and spite for not accepting and conforming to the corruptions of the system is completely unacceptable.

    However, as he recognises himself, and continues to challenge, is that this is not just about him. It is something we all have to address, and it's difficult for us all; the question of retribution and justice. Ben's story has moved me, because he clearly has addressed, and continues to challenge himself, and I get the sense from his work that he has so much to contribute to all of us in this debate. It's not often that someone in his circumstances is able to articulate the experience from this perspective, and I believe he would be able to do that much more effectively if he were free. He was a child, and the little I have been able to find out after thorough searching is that it seemed it was an accident, and with the understanding of a 14 year old he immediately confessed to murder. My instinct is to feel that if he had not been in care, someone would have spoken up for him, and the outcome of the case would have been different. I grew up in care, so speak from experience - and I have seen, and felt, the prejudices and assumptions that the system itself enforces, let alone individuals.

    However, so did his friend, and for me this is complicated, and important, because it will be important to the society that needs to address this, and realise a better way forward. I hope that the intention of the author is that we do not question further, or do not look beyond his words to try and understand.

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  29. Looking at this exchange, I feel I should contribute. I shall print off this discussion and send it to Ben as it is not for me to respond to something so sensitive.

    All I will say is that Ben has always sought to protect the victim's family from the media. The closest he got to talking about his crime was the post entitled "Remorse".

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  30. I'm a bit late to this but the prison system and parole at the moment is complete bollocks and always has been bollocks. I'm please to say that I have never been in the prison system although I do have a caution hanging over me for 3 more years for strangling an ex after I met my limit after nearly a year of being bullied by her.

    She got my flat but luckily no possessions, I hate her and my family will destroy her on site.

    I'm still waiting for the NHS to contact me for councilling and all that bollocks. 2 years on.

    Believe it or not I have move on and I am a step parent now but I need that help to let go of the past. I think you get treated even worse by the police especially now you can't have a fag!

    Going to add you on facebook ben and get in touch you are an inspiration and I will fight your corner with you.

    Ian /Born in Leicester / Now living between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire on some shithole estate.

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