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?