On the 9th July, 31 years after I was sentenced to life imprisonment, the Parole Board delivered it’s judgement on my continued imprisonment in clear and explicit terms recommending my transfer to an open prison in preparation for my probable release in 12 months time. The Ministry of Justice and prison system decided to ignore and effectively sabotage the recommendation, raising the question of exactly what real legal authority the Parole Board has over the prison system in determining how life sentenced prisoners are progressed towards release, and maybe more critically what real motives underlay senior prison management’s attempts on occasion to subvert the recommendations of the Parole Board?
As an expert risk assessment body the Parole Board when reviewing the case of a life sentence prisoner will have access to a whole wealth of information and professional opinion on the prisoner and on that basis will make a well-informed and carefully reasoned decision on the prisoner’s progression to freedom with a clear priority given to the issue of public safety. In my own case the information, evidence and opinion provided by two senior forensic psychologists and successive prison Integrated Case Management Conference reports reported minimal or no risk to public safety and the appropriateness of a transfer to an open jail.
The question of my potential risk to the public had in fact already been answered by the direct evidence of my having already had considerable access to the community over a four year period whilst in semi-open and open conditions between 2005 and 2008. Whilst working on day-release programmes in the community with some of that communities most vulnerable members, as well as countless home leaves, there had never been the slightest cause for concern about my behaviour and not a single incident of inappropriate behaviour. In 2007, however, a prison-employed social worker at Castle Huntley open prison in Dundee wrote a report containing an allegation that I was linked to what he described as a ‘terrorist, paramilitary organisation’. In reality the group in question was a perfectly legal prisoner support group, but as a direct consequence of the allegation I was transferred back to a high-security jail for 9 months. Following a campaign by myself and the prisoner support group concerned, as well as an investigation by the social worker’s employer, Perth and Kinross Council, that found that the allegation in his report was totally untrue, I was returned to an open jail. My relationship with the prison system however was considerably soured and made more antagonistic, and in May of 2008 I absconded, remaining at large for 3 weeks. Over the following 3 years in closed conditions I was reported in a social work risk-assessment report to have fully addressed the reasons for the abscond and the recommendation was made that I be returned to an open jail. The recommendation was ignored by the prison authorities.
Prior to my actual Parole hearing on the 31st June the prison authorities had made no claim or recommendation that any offence-related programs or courses were considered necessary in my case, and in fact the reports of both prison based social workers and psychologists supported the view that the only area considered necessary to address was how to re-settle an individual back into the community after three decades in prison. The 3 basic criteria or requisite conditions determining the suitability of a life sentence prisoner for release [length of time served in the interests of retribution, minimum risk of violently re-offending, able to be managed in the community] were all positively affirmed in my case. A prominent characteristic of my behaviour in jail, defined by the prison authorities as a ‘problem with authority’, was also considered by the Parole Board who observed in their judgement, ‘When younger you were rebellious almost as a matter of principle but you have grown to recognise the need for proper authority, but where that authority was abused or corrupt you have campaigned against it. That is of course laudable.’ That remark would obviously not sit well with the prison system who for decades had claimed that my struggle and activities on behalf of prisoners rights was nothing more than ‘subversive behaviour’ and an attempt to create violent disorder. Clearly what also disappointed the prison authorities was the Parole Boards rejection of it’s recommendation that I be held for another 2 years; instead the Board decided on a 12 month deferment of release with a clear recommendation that I be transferred to an open prison within that time.
On the 30th June Debbie Piper of the Ministry of Justice totally misrepresented the judgement of the Parole Board by informing me, ‘The Parole Board did not direct your release or your transfer to an open jail. The Secretary of State has identified from information in your dossier further interventions [programmes] in closed conditions to help you address various risk factors.’ As if on cue an assistant governor at Edinburgh prison, Paul Davidson, informed me that as a condition of my transfer to an open jail I would have to agree to cooperate with assessment procedures for various programmes and courses. Paul Davidson had represented the prison service at my parole hearing on the 31st June and had assured the board that if my release was deferred for 2 years I would be transferred fairly quickly to an open jail. Now Davidson moved the goal posts and warned that a refusal on my part to cooperate with lengthy programmes would mean an indefinite stay in high-security conditions. The recommendation of the Parole Board was now forgotten as far as the prison authorities were concerned and they would now dictate how and when I would be released from jail.
This is of course unlawful. Under Article 5 (4) of the Convention for Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“Everyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings by which the lawfulness of his detention shall be decided speedily by a court and his release ordered if the detention is unlawful”). The prison system must comply with the directions of a legal authority such as the Parole Board. However, there is a prevailing mentality amongst those who run and administer prisons that the rule of law stops dead at the prison gate, and especially in terms of its treatment of what it considers and terms “difficult” prisoners it often displays an absolute contempt for the law. There is a sort of invented morality governing the treatment of prisoners that perceives the most “dangerous” of them to be the ones who fight and resist repression on behalf of their fellow prisoners and seeks to hold their captors legally accountable; for these prisoners all laws and rules are broken and disregarded as the prison system tries to break and destroy them.
My continued detention in jail is now becoming unlawful and I am now being held not because I represent and sort of danger or risk to the community or because I have been insufficiently punished for my original crime in 1980, I am now being kept in jail because of my reputation as a prison activist or “troublemaker”. I will of course NEVER submit to unlawful treatment, whether inflicted on me or my fellow prisoners, and I would ask only that my continued imprisonment be reviewed and considered with fairness and justice.
John Bowden 6729 HMP Edinburgh 33 Stenhouse Road Edinburgh EH11 3LN