Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Arbitrary Insanity

Just for a moment, forget televisions and PlayStations. One of the greatest burdens of being a Lifer is that we are perpetually vulnerable to arbitrary decisions and judgements made by those in charge of our lives and progress to release. This happened to me at my recent parole hearing.

In the first few years of our sentence, we are prodded and poked about our crime until our keepers are happy that they can distil from the events our "risk factors". These are the elements in our lives, the motives for our crime. The idea then is that we address these factors during our sentence and reduce them to a level where we are safe to be released. For instance, if you are a persistent drinker and kill a man after an angry outburst in a pub, the risk factors would include 'alcohol' and 'anger management'.

I refused to talk about my crime for over a year after I was convicted. Since then, I've spoken about it, rehashed it, in a thousand interviews, to the extent that I then exhibit symptoms of PTSD. The Prison Service and their legions of psychologists listed my risk factors over a quarter of a century ago. This list has expanded and contracted a little over the years, according to the whims of staff, but usually comprises loss of control, anti-authoritarian attitude, low self-esteem, relationships and impulsive aggressive behaviour (i.e., the offence).
In fairness, most of these factors can be linked to my crime, even if very tenuously. Being anti-authoritarian is a stretch though; what's that to do with killing my mate? So prison staff chuck stuff into these lists of risk factors that have bugger all to do with the crime.

For the length of my sentence, then, both I and staff have worked from a common understanding of my crime. Not a single psychologist has disputed either the events or the analysis. Even the Home Office and Ministry of Justice have always been happy with this joint analysis. Every previous Parole Board has been happy with it. But now, it's all up in the air.

The psychologist who sat as part of the last Parole panel put me through the wringer over my motives. She was not happy with my analysis of why I killed my friend. You can say she is entitled to her view, true. But when it flies in the face of 25 years worth of prison reports, from psychologists and psychiatrists, it would be fair to insist that she base her view on more than a personal whim.

It sticks in my throat that the Parole answer then includes the line that "of critical importance no-one, including you, knows what the triggers were in your index offence." They could properly have written that "the psychologist on the parole board wasn't happy", that's fine. But to suggest that both I and everyone who has dealt with me for the last 30 years have been scratching our heads over this is a blatant lie. All the prison staff reports at that hearing, and the summary of my whole sentence put before them, all agree about my crime and my 'risk factors'. Not a single one wavers from that. Everyone knows what the triggers were in my crime - but this one psychologist isn't convinced.

Why should this matter to me, enough to bore you with it? Because it sets the clock back thirty years, it wipes out all I have done to reduce my risk. It is to say that they are no nearer understanding me or my crime than they were the day I entered prison. Though this panel then recommends me for Open prison, I am in a position of extreme danger.

I could walk through the gates and be welcomed by some trainee psychologist who could now say that without a sound understanding of my crime I'm too high a risk to progress. That I will need to do endless "work". And until this work is done, I am stuck, in limbo.

My defence against what I see as this rogue parole board psychologist is that the official response from the Ministry of Justice makes no mention of this fracas. They remain content that they, myself and prison staff understand my crime. All the Ministry want me to do in the way of 'psychology stuff' is to work on my 'commitment and motivation'. To what, they don't say.

That parole hearing came within a whisker of screwing me over and rendering the last thirty years moot. It could easily have sunk me for another decade or more. Not for anything I've done of late, not for any change in circumstances or attitudes, not for outrageous behaviour. But simply because one psychologist disagrees with every other psychologist who has gone before.

This is the nature of my sentence. All Lifers live in a state of flux, uncertainty, knowing that whatever we do we are always vulnerable to just one individual writing a bad report or taking a different view. And that halts us in our tracks.

It looks as if I dodged a bullet this time, and let's hope I manage to remain unscathed through my time in Open prison. My view of the Parole Board, though, has sunk even lower than it was before. And I didn't think that was possible.


  1. Is it possible that this opinion was generated to justify the length of time you have been detained or some other political reason?

    Or a safety net such that should anything not go to their plan, they can fall back on this rogue opinion and say, "See, I told you so."

    I look forward to hearing of your experiences in open prison soon. How long for that now?

  2. I agree with the above comments, "they" I believe the politicians, are now trying to justify their response to the actions of a 14 year old who should never have stood trial for murder. Ben is the product of our system, what does that say for the system if after all this time they still dont want to admit the injustice which has been done to him, and act with some compassion.

  3. I think the problem is that a parole board can make thousands of mistakes and detain people who should have been released and nobody says a word but if they make a single mistake and release a murderer who kills again all the tabloids will be calling for their heads.

  4. In an earlier post I said that in 1994 I had the same experience as Ben with a psychologist's report. It is this one which carries the most weight with the Parole Board. For example, 6 out of 7 reports favoured either release or open prison but the Parole Board relied on the 7th which recommended a move from Category B to C. The Parole Board thought 18 months in C would suffice, it turned out I was there for 5 years! It was dead time, I simply stagnated. The amount of lifers who get stuck in C like it is a swamp is amazing.

    Then I was transferred backwards to B, went to another B Rye Hill (where I met Ben) before jumping over C and went to D an open prison. In short, instead of getting out in 1994 I got out in 2004. To date, the prison authorities have not justified the extra 10 years.

    In 1990/91 a welfare officer wrote a bad report about me. When I confronted him he said he wrote it on the ground that his next report would be positive and thereby show an improvement in my conduct. The problem being he moved on and the bad report remained.

    It used to be the case that reports were secret but then came a change in the law and open reporting came in. They followed a template with headings. Staff knew which words or phrases to use to either help or harm your case. One psychologist who spoke to staff wrote that they were not happy about my litigation. He said, whilst this pursuit is legitimate but because of the negative staff comments I needed to change my positive mentality to suit them! It beggars belief that someone with such qualifications could turn right into wrong rather than suggest that those who are wrong change their attitude.

  5. JHL has just summed up why we desperately need reform. That someones life is decided by the mood of one or two people is a disgrace.

  6. I have heard of you because of the Times article and have since told my family about you. I hope it offers a small glimmer of hope that more and more people are becoming aware of your situation.