Parole Board keeping lifers behind bars

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Swaleside Prison

There is currently a massive population of post-tariff life sentence prisoners overcrowding British prisons; lifers detained long beyond the time originally recommended by the judiciary or Secretary of State. This includes prisoners sentenced under the Indefinite detention for Public Protection law which, although now scrapped, has left a legacy of thousands of prisoners. Britain has more indeterminate sentence prisoners than the whole of Europe combined: a consequence of a ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’ culture that pervades the judiciary and justice apparatus. Parole Board collaboration in detaining lifers who represent little or no actual risk to the community was typified in my own case in June 2017, when, after 37 years’ imprisonment – more than ten years beyond the original judicial recommendation – the Board denied my application for release for nakedly political reasons. John Bowden writes from HMP Swaleside.

Officially, the position of the Parole Board, when considering the release of post-tariff lifers is determined by evidence of continued risk to the public and whatever is necessary for ‘public protection’. On 4 June 2017 a five-hour parole hearing here at Swaleside prison established conclusively from reports and evidence that any actual risk I represented to the community was non-existent. So the Parole Board simply moved the goalposts and focused instead on my ‘politicised anti-authoritarianism’ and refusal to obediently accept and comply with the omnipotent power of the prison system; I would continue to be detained not because I represented any sort of risk to the community but because I have a ‘deeply held mistrust of authority’ and because ‘your political affiliations could prove risky’.

In fact, the claim is that it’s not the public or community that I represent a threat to, but those enforcing the power of the state. To support this, the Board quotes a report from a prison system-hired psychologist: ‘Bowden will perceive professionals responsible for his supervision in the community as part of a larger corruptive system. This then provides him with an ideological justification for engaging in violence against them. Victims here are likely to be those in positions of authority and the type of violence could be severe based on opportunity. Bowden is likely to be drawn into activist movements where violence is more easily justified.’

My writing of articles exposing abuses of power by those working for the criminal justice system was also condemned by the Parole Board. Clearly my exposure of the lies in a 2007 report to the Parole Board that I was linked to a ‘terrorist group’, in the form of prisoner support organisation Anarchist Black Cross, was not going to be forgiven. However, focusing entirely on my political belief system and the support of outside groups in distributing my writings was probably felt by the Board to be a questionable lawful justification for my continued detention, so it focused more specifically on my ‘difficult relationship’ with the prison system as the ultimate rationale for my detention. In its conclusion it says: ‘Whilst the Board entirely accepts that in 20 years there has been no proven violence, there remain concerns about your ability to deal with perceived unfairness and authority figures you consider are abusing their power.’

In an attempt to prove my ‘problem with authority’, the Board’s decision completely misrepresents the facts relating to an incident in Greenock prison in 2015 when I defended myself from a completely unprovoked physical attack from a prison officer: ‘Whilst the Board accepts that your views in relation to violence have changed, the Board was concerned that when discussing the issue in relation to the most recent allegation of violence against a prison officer you felt that the officer was trying to humiliate you and in the circumstances physical conflict became the most likely outcome. The Board was satisfied that this incident, whilst not leading to serious physical harm to either you or the prison officer, demonstrates your attitude towards authority and your inability to manage your feelings.’ When I pointed out to the hearing that I had defended myself from a physical assault by the guard and that the decision of the subsequent court hearing was that there was no evidence that I had initiated the incident or behaved unlawfully, the Board responded that I was being ‘defensive, argumentative, talking over the panel and refusing to consider an alternative view’. It concluded that ‘your actions, whilst not leading to a finding of guilt, nevertheless demonstrate your attitude to authority’. In other words, the verdict of the court of law counts for nothing.

For having the temerity to remind the parole panel that even prisoners retain the human right to self-defence, the Board described me as ‘arrogant and self-confident’ and dismissed with contempt my application for release after 37 years’ imprisonment.

The appointment in 2016 of former Prisons Inspector Nick Hardwick – who had witnessed the massive overcrowding of prisons with indeterminate sentenced prisoners and the climate of despair and hopelessness that now plagued prisons – as Chairman of the Parole Board, promised, in his own words, a real shift in cultural attitude and a significant increase in the number of post-tariff lifers released. His words have been predictably empty and the Parole Board continues to deny the release of thousands of lifers without any ‘public protection’ justification at all. ‘Life means life’ continues to guide the decision-making mentality of the Parole Board and as a consequence it has created human warehouses, festering with rage and overflowing with hatred that will sooner or later ignite into open and desperate rebellion.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 259 August/September 2017