Sunday, July 16, 2023

How very Soviet

Well, I’ve finally been provoked into blogging for the first time in several years. Apologies. I am unable to balance openness with privacy, a problem that has plagued me since my release. But here we are.

The junction between politics and criminal justice is usually a messy one.

Some nations have resolved this by making them the same. The Soviet Union, North Korea, China…all the nice places just subsumed criminal justice into their ideological fortress and the political becomes the judicial. Whatever became politically necessary became judicially correct. Then you were shot in a basement.

The cynical amongst you, and long time readers, will appreciate that there were corners of British justice which were always afflicted by the same disease - politically motivated sentencing.

Life sentences were a particularly fraught, politically charged, judicially warped arena. The setting of minimum terms for lifers was set by bureaucrats. The prerequisite to release of moving to Open prison was decided by Ministers (or the paper-monkeys acting under his/her name). Release was decided by Ministers.

During all of this, the Parole Board was a factor, but in reality and law couldn't make decisions, merely recommendations. Hence the situation where the Board assessed me as fit for Open for ten years on the trot, with Ministers refusing to let me move. That cost me ten years and the taxpayer the best part of 300,000 quid.

The cost in time and money was the smallest cost of political control over sentences. The largest cost was that it distorted Justice itself.

Which brings me to recent events. A Bill is currently passing through the legislature that removes the legal processes put in place over the past 25 years to ensure release decisions are fair and rational, not centred on reflex responses to the Daily Mail front page. The party of law and order is abandoning law and order in favour of vote-grabbing. I will return to maul this travesty soon enough.

Meanwhile, a more febrile series of events occurred that illustrates the politically porous nature of the management of Life sentences and the moral vacuum that can corrode people's views.

A transgender prisoner, lets call him SAB, made a speech at a recent rally which included the phrase “punch TERFs in the face”. The crowd cheered - a disturbing development where violence against political opponents seems to becoming acceptable.

So far, so normal, in these intense culture wars. But SAB isn't your usual speaker. He is a Lifer on license in the community. He was originally given a discretionary Life sentence for kidnapping and torture, then attempted to murder a fellow prisoner. The result was that SAB served some 30 years before the Board judged him safe enough to release.

Lifers calling for violence are, to be crystal clear, absolute fucking idiots. I really can't emphasise enough how insanely stupid it is. Whether you mean it or not. And you can expect a robust response from the probation service and/or the Parole Board.

But, if you have the barest of interest in criminal justice, you expect this response to be proportional and necessary for public protection. Not driven by political motives. I cannot stress enough how corrosive it is to any system of justice to be driven by political decisions.

Information is incomplete and sporadic, but we do know that the Met police initially said there was no crime, no arrest necessary. It is reported that the Probation Service hauled SAB in and gave him a warning, but decided that his risk to the public has not reached the level of requiring a recall to prison - the ultimate sanction for a Lifer on license.

Enter the mob. Of course, in this age, it was a Twitter mob. Led by a lawyer (not criminal law) who would describe herself as decidedly TERF-ish, who felt personally at risk from SAB because SAB had suggested he would be attending a speaking event organised by said lawyer. We can call her TL, TERF lawyer.

This is not unreasonable. A man with a history of violence, who had just called for violence against TERFs, was attempting to attend TL’s event. TL was extremely unhappy at the lack of action by the police, and quickly began to threaten legal action. Many other women also made complaints to the police.

Enter the politicians. The Home Secretary, in charge of the police forces, tweeted that she hoped the Met would revisit the case. Which is, to all but the disingenuous, an instruction to the police. Oddly enough, SAB was then arrested. Then released, investigations ongoing.

In the face of no information from the Probation Service as to what was going on, TL began threatening legal action unless her needs were met - recall SAB to prison.

SAB was then recalled to prison. Despite Probation previously determining this wasn't necessary on grounds of risk, it is believed that the Minster of Justice ordered the recall. The second political interference in the situation, for solely political benefit.

I began to feel very uncomfortable at this point. The sheer ignorance of the system of those campaigning for this was as deep as it was expected. What shocked me most was the sheer visceral glee of these people at the recall of a man to prison for possibly many years, on political instructions. I stupidly expected better from someone working in the justice system.

TL went so far as to say that she would not be happy unless SAB stayed in prison for the rest of his life. Likely to be decades. At this point we parted ways…

Scratch a liberal and underneath you’ll find a Daily Mail editorial. I was still shocked at the blatant glee. Not that a possible danger was averted, but that a person from the opposing tribe was going to suffer. The joy at that was vomitus.

I begged that they at least appreciate what they had done. And the denials came thick and fact - “We did nothing, he did it to himself”. As if a Hand of God mysteriously came down and transported SAB to the Scrubs. As if their screaming at the Ministry had nothing to do with Ministers reversing two previously made decisions by Probation. This was disingenuous hypocrisy from those simultaneously cheering their success.

It is the excuse used to justify anything done to prisoners. “Well, if you hadn’t committed the crime and gone to prison, the screws wouldn't be giving you a beating. Your fault.” It's a refrain I’ve heard for decades. And its still as pathetic and immoral.

The final step from me was to point out that getting a man imprisoned was a big deal, and may not have been necessary. But no, they wanted him in prison. Period. TL especially, who was still threatening to sue Probation for not dancing to her satisfaction.

I deleted my Twitter account. I was not going to be anywhere near a mob who could turn on me in an instant and try to use political pressure to get me imprisoned. I’ve been through that already, thanks.

The final straw was the response from TL when I asked if she knew what she had inflicted, what prison is like? The response was so steeped in ignorance I may frame it for posterity:

I can’t turn on Netflix without tripping over yet another ‘behind bars’ documentary or dramatised film about men getting attacked by the Big Dog who's in with the Warden. We’ve all seen Shawshank Redemption. My dad did three days in Shrewsbury prison. Don’t come this ‘you don't know prison’ nonsense.”

Truly mind-boggling. Hatred addles the mind. Ideology can allow you to justify doing horrible things. And political interference in the justice system invariably leads to injustice.

Me? I’d have hauled him in for a chat. An official warning. And recalled him to a Probation hostel with a strict curfew and limited geographical movement. That would have negated any risk. But in their ignorance and sheer spite, safety wasn’t what they actually wanted. They wanted to see him suffer.

And if you hear my voice from the cockpit of a plane, don’t worry, I know all about flying. After all, my Grandad was in the RFC and I’ve watched Top Gun five times.

Ben Gunn

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