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Friday, May 07, 2010

Parole Board criticised by prison law barrister

Parole Board criticised by prison law barrister

A letter from Ben's barrister, Flo Krause

Today at 12:39am

Ben's barrister, Flo Krause has sent this letter more fully explaining what happened in Ben's hearing and giving a bit more insight into the system in general. It is important to remember that it isn't only Ben trapped in this horrible system, there are many many others.

Yesterday Ben was expecting to have a review of his suitability for a transfer to open conditions. For those of you who don't know, lifers are expected to spend some time in open conditions before being released for the dual purpose of testing and rehabilitation. This can vary between a year and many years depending upon risk assessments. Ben had already secured a decision that he was suitable for open conditions last May. A panel recommended this and the secretary of state agreed as he has the last say on transfers of lifers to open conditions.

Security at the prison where Ben is then found some voice recordings of Ben and his partner on another inmate's computer. These recordings, all six hours of it, were what you would expect two people in love to say to each other. Private things. Loving things. Mad things. In there, there was a mention of Ben having a mobile phone to stay in touch with her. There was also mention of his partner smuggling items into the prison like nice toilettries, DVDs of films she liked and wanted to share with ben, stuff that relationships are made of.

This came to light and the matter was referred to the parole board by the secretary of state to see how such matters impacted on risk. This is what the review was about yesterday.

The panel yesterday wanted more information before they felt able to make a decision on risk. They wanted to see a full transcript of all the recordings/listen to it all despite a transcript of the salient bits being provided to them. It is bad enough that Ben's relationship has to be ripped apart publicly like this with no regard to his and his partner s dignity and right to a private life but to want even more is simply shocking when what they had was obviously all to do with a loving and equal relationship between two adults.

They also wanted more information going back over thirty years, to the trial. Hard to see the relevance of this. They also wanted a psychological report from a prison psychologist despite having a report there from a very experienced psychologist who worked in prison for 30 years and who provided a report on an independent basis. Ben's hearing was therefore deferred pending all this information being made available. The alternative would have been to push for a hearing there and then but with the inevitable conclusion that Ben was too high a risk for transfer to open conditions as a result of what the panel did NOT know rather than on the basis of what they did know.

The chair had asked for a member of security to be there to give evidence as to the recordings but somehow out of the five people who could have come no-one was in the prison at that time.

Ben is absolutely devastated, obviously.

The biggest problem with these risk assessments and the risk assessment process generally for life sentence prisoners who are held in prison solely on the basis of future risk is that there are two separate elements. The first is the prison system. The second is the Parole system. The Parole system exists to protect the public from harm. So the remit of the Parole Board is to assess the risk a prisoner presents and decide whether that risk is manageable in the community. How do they do that?

They rely on assessments provided by the prison. And this is where it rubs. Prisons are microcosms. They have their own rules and codes. A prisoner who does not bow his head and doff his cap with humility will inevitably be labelled as a trouble maker, a rule breaker, insubordinate and this then translates into the prisoner being a risk to the public because nobody can predict what he might do as a result and he will be impossible to supervise on licence. This is a rough sketch but not far off from the truth. I see hundreds of men, serving life sentences, way past their tariff, with an impeccable custodial history who, on one occasion when they were perhaps feeling exhausted, depressed, devastated by some bad news or anything just awful, may have reacted badly to an officer's rudeness or dismissiveness and who have had to spend another two years in prison as a result of the bad reports they got from the prison.

This is because all the Parole Board have to make their risk assessment are the reports from the prison. It follows that although the Parole Board have to consider risk to the public and nothing else, the only way they can do that is by scrutinising the man's prison record and the reports produced by various prison based people (probation, psychology, uniform officers). The assumption is ALWAYS that the prison report writers are right and that the prisoner is wrong or lying or minimising if he happens to disagree.

Then the risk assessment is not about risk anymore but about peripheral things, like supervisability, compliance, attitude etc. It all gets mixed up. The prison must enforce their rules and codes for their own reasons, such as ensuring that prisoners do not have mobile phones or unsupervised access to the Internet for obvious reasons, such as drugs, pornography etc. This is understandable from their point of view.

The Parole Board, however, will prevent a man from progressing or being released if he breaches prison rules. The most tenuous link to risk will be made in the decision making process so as to justify the adverse decision, but inevitably, the risk assessment process by the Parole Board is all bound up with prison discipline issues which may or may not have anything to do with risk.

It is easy, therefore, to see how someone like Ben is sill in prison after all these years, despite his absolute commitment and dedication to non violence and peaceful protest.

Ben has given me permission to write about his case and his hearing.

Flo Krause

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