On November 6th 2013 the Parole Board for England and Wales carried out its statutory obligation to review my continued detention after more than three decades in prison and many years beyond what the judiciary originally recommended I should serve in jail. Following an earlier parole hearing in May 2011 the board had recommended my transfer to an open prison in preparation for my release 12 months hence.
Almost three years later I remain in a maximum-security prison because of what the prison system and a criminal justice system social worker claim is my politicised anti-authoritarian attitude and “rigid belief system” that is antipathetic to my being properly supervised outside a custodial setting. No one who gave evidence at the parole hearing, even representatives of the prison system, claimed that I represented any sort of threat or risk to the community, the usual reason or criterion for the continued detention of a life sentence prisoner beyond what the judiciary had originally recommended as the appropriate length of time they should serve in jail. In my case the “interest of retribution” had long been served or satisfied and I continue to be detained because of what is viewed and defined as a “rigid” political belief system formed after 30 years of resisting and confronting abuses of power by the prison system. At the recent parole hearing reference was also made to what was described as my “internet activity”, my writing and distributing articles critical of the prison system through a political group on the outside.
A prison officer, Marten Whiteman, who gave evidence at the hearing, claimed that my attempt to publicly expose abuses of power by the prison system was an explicit attempt to “intimidate” and frighten prison staff such as himself. Whiteman, who routinely opposes the release of life sentence prisoners at parole hearings that he manages and administers within Shotts prison, claimed that my use of and access to the internet through radical groups on the outside represented little more than a weapon of subversion to undermine the power and authority of people like himself. His evidence was treated sympathetically by a parole board now focused on legitimising and rubber stamping my continued imprisonment. When asked by my lawyer why a recommendation made by the parole board in 2011 that I be transferred to an open jail in preparation for release was completely ignored by the administration at Shotts prison, Whiteman replied that following that recommendation the “programs Dept” at the prison, of which he is the manager, decided that I “qualified” for a lengthy “anti-violence” behaviour-modification programme; my refusal to co-operate with the programme, he claimed, was the reason why I remained in maximum-security conditions. When I asked why I “qualified” for such a programme considering that I had exhibited or shown no violent behaviour in over 20 years, during which I had worked outside of prison in community-based projects for the vulnerable and disadvantaged, Whiteman claimed to have no idea. When pressed to explain the decision of the “Programmes Dept” and what evidence it had considered to justify my qualification for such a programme, Whiteman said he couldn’t remember.
Two days after the parole hearing a prisoner who worked in the re-cycling and disposal facility at the prison retrieved a bundle of documents sent for destruction from the “Programmes Dept”. The consisted of downloaded articles from the internet written by me and a profile describing me as a “militant prisoner”. This, it would seem, was the evidence considered by the “Programmes Dept” who then arbitrarily used the system of programmes and behaviour –modification courses as a justification to prolong my imprisonment. Another critical witness at the parole hearing was a community-based criminal justice system worker authorised to supervise me in the event of my release. Brendan Barnett co-ordinated the opposition to my release in his role as committed “public protection officer”, whilst admitting that my actual risk to the public was minimal or none-existent. His reason for opposing my release was his stated belief that I would be difficult to supervise in the community because of my “entrenched and rigid anti –authoritarian attitude”. When asked by my lawyer about significant lies and distortions of truth in his report to the parole board, he simply smiled.
The board itself, chaired by a senior judge, remained silent when confronted by the lies in Barnetts report. Like Whiteman, Barnett claimed my writing and distributing articles critical of the prison and criminal justice system was little more than an attempt to “intimidate” people such as himself. As evidence of my ideologically-driven contempt for official authority he produced an article recently written by me and distributed via the internet entitled “Neo-Liberalism and Prisons” and then quotes the following paragraph:“The change of philosophy and policy as far as the criminal justice system is concerned is especially reflected in the treatment of those subject to judicial supervision orders and conditions of parole, and the changing role of probation officers and criminal social workers from a “client-cantered” and rehabilitative approach to one far more focused on strict supervision and “public protection”. Occupations that were once guided by to a certain extent by the rehabilitate ideal have now become little more than a extension of the police and prison system, and abandoning any vision of positively reforming and socially reintegrating the “offender” now instead prioritise punishment, social isolation and stringent supervision. This replacement of the rehabilitative model with a more managerialist one enforcing evermore “robust” and invasive conditions of parole and supervision renders it’s subjects increasingly less as prisoners being returned to freedom and more as ones waiting to be returned to prison for technical breaches of licence conditions.
As with all things neo-liberal the increased focus on the strict supervision and surveillance of ex-prisoners and “offenders” draws it’s inspiration from the U.S. and it’s parole system with a total focus on the straight forward policing of parolees. It’s also a form of supervision increasingly extended into the lives of the poor generally, especially those dependent on welfare and state benefits, the social group from which prisoners are disproportionately drawn. In a age of economic deregulation the marginality and inequality of the poor has increased to such an extent that they are now almost demonised and subject to the same penal-like supervision as ex-convicts.”This, Barnet claimed, was evidence of my contempt for any form of post- release supervision and a compelling reason why I should be detained in prison indefinitely. The parole Board appeared to agree with him.
There were other voices that were not heard at the parole hearing, like Kate Hendry, a lecturer and a teacher at the prisons education dept. In May of 2012 she submitted a report to the Parole Board in which she wrote: “In the 12 years that I have worked in prisons, I have never met someone so transformed while in prison, from criminal to citizen as John Bowden. His experience of imprisonment has enabled him to develop a more social and humane perspective; a rare achievement indeed. His energetic but gentle approach in assisting in the education of other prisoners, given his long imprisonment, is a testimony to his successful struggle to retain his humanity in the service of others. He is a generous and thoughtful person who has become a invaluable presence to staff and students alike”. Following her submitting that report to the Parole Board she was dismissed from her job in the prison on the grounds that she had become “inappropriately close” to me and was therefore a “potential security risk” in the prison. Her voice, in any case, would have been marginalised at the parole hearing, the agenda of which was obviously to construct a case against my release by any means necessary.
Towards that end the “evidence” of Whiteman and Barnett, no matter how dishonest and motivated by a desire to silence and crush me, held sway for an inherently conservative and risk obsessed Parole Board whose collective attitude was encapsulated in a question asked by one of them during the hearing : “Why haven’t you kept your head down and did all that was asked of you, like most other life sentence prisoners?” Absolute, unquestioning conformity within a prison system characterised by one of the worst records of human rights abuses in Europe is, it seems the sole prerequisite for release of life sentence prisoners on Britain.
Inevitably the formal decision of the Parole Board when it is delivered soon will authorise my continued and indefinite detention on the grounds that by my attitude and inclination I remain a “difficult” and “confrontational” prisoner who although not a risk or threat to society doesn’t quite know his place as someone with absolutely no human rights or otherwise that the state is obliged to recognise or acknowledge. My continued imprisonment with increasingly less hope of release and freedom will do nothing to diminish my determination to continue speaking out with political integrity and courage.
John Bowden, Shotts Prison, November 2013
( Note – shortly after this was written- as predicted John was refused Parole)