I have just received some bad news which leads me to think that the time has come for me to write a bit about my present situation. To do that, I must go back to the beginning.
I was locked up in 2002, aged just sixteen. At the time of sentencing, there were a number of different psychiatric reports done by several doctors, who all disagreed with each other’s conclusions. Some said I was on the road to developing a mental illness, others said I only had behavioural difficulties, and others said I was absolutely fine.
Because of this disagreement, the judge concluded that he could not be sure which road I would go down, and therefore whether I was likely to re-offend in the future. Therefore, he decided that the only way to reduce the risk of me committing further crimes, would be to impose an indeterminate sentence of which I would serve a minimum term of three years, but I would not be released until the parole board is satisfied that I no longer pose a risk to the public. Had I been sentenced just a few years later, this sentence probably would have taken the form of the controversial (and now scrapped) IPP sentence. But the IPP sentence did not exist in 2002, so the only indeterminate sentence available to the judge was what is known as ‘detention for life’. A life sentence for juvenile offenders.
In all honesty, the judge made the right decision. Looking back on it, I was in an extremely troubled place at that time, and I could have gone either way. Had I received a seven year determinate sentence (which was the other sentence the judge said he was considering) for which I would have served just three and a half years before being guaranteed release, then I probably wouldn’t have taken it so seriously, and wouldn’t have changed at all. If anything, I think I probably would have got worse. On the other hand, receiving a life sentence shocked me. I knew I wouldn’t get out until I changed, and so I knew that something must have been seriously wrong. I immediately began to ask myself some very difficult questions and within weeks, I resolved to do three things. Firstly, I would examine myself to find what had gone so drastically wrong. Second, I would correct my thinking and change my attitudes. And third, I would put strategies in place to recognise the possible signs of deterioration in my attitudes and thinking, and also to stop this happening if any of those signs came up. I knew this would be necessary if I was ever going to change and to be ready for release, and especially necessary if I was ever going to convince the parole board of that.
However, the problem with life sentences for juveniles is that the parole board judge whether a prisoner has reduced their risk by the reports that they receive from prison and probation staff, and prison and probation staff judge it by whether the prisoner has 1. given a satisfactory explanation for the motivation behind their offending, 2. successfully completed sufficient ‘accredited offending behaviour programmes’ run by the prison service, and 3. showed improved behaviour and attitudes following the completion of those programmes. This is problematic since juvenile prisons did not run any such accredited programmes (and, as far as I know, they still don’t). There were a couple of non-accredited programmes available to me, and I completed these with good reports very early on. But these are not given the same recognition. In effect, prisoners are given a pat on the back for doing them, and then told that they should now get on with the real thing.
As a result of this, by the time my tariff (the minimum time I had to serve in prison) had run out, and I became eligible to apply for parole in 2005, I had not had a chance to complete the relevant courses. But that doesn’t mean that I hadn’t changed. I had spent three years changing, both under my own initiative, and with the help of the unaccredited programmes and intensive work that I had completed. I had also completed a number of educational courses and, after coming to prison without a single qualification, I had a whole bundle of certificates ranging from Basic Skills to AS Levels in everything from Literacy and Numeracy to Critical Thinking and Advanced IT. On the other hand, my behaviour had been inconsistent. At times I had been described as a ‘model prisoner’ (I’m still not sure whether that’s a compliment or an insult) and at others I got involved in some very stupid things. Some of these were my own fault and I take full responsibility for them. Others were either beyond my control or cooked up entirely. For example, writing to someone I didn’t know under a pseudonym in an attempt to build a friendship and pitch a business plan seemed to make sense to me at first. I didn’t want them to know I was a prisoner because I wanted them to judge my pitch according to its merits and not according to my past, hence the pseudonym. And all I really wanted was to put my educational achievements to good use and put things in place for my eventual release. In retrospect, it was dishonest and immature. I hadn’t thought it through and I accept that it didn’t look good at all. I take full responsibility for that. On the other hand though, I was also placed on report for fighting after another prisoner attacked me from behind when I was sitting watching TV. I didn’t throw a single punch but was told by the governor that ‘there is no such thing as self defence in prison law, there was a fight, you were involved, therefore you are guilty of fighting.’ I have since found out that this is entirely untrue. There is such a thing as self defence in prison law. But, more than that, in prison law it shouldn’t have even been classed as a fight, it should have been classed as an assault. But that doesn’t stop it being on my record as a violent incident.
By the time my first opportunity for parole came around in 2005, there had been a few incidents similar to the two above and, although I had changed a lot, I knew I still wasn’t ready to be released. I had a lot more changing to do before I was ready for that. I therefore wrote to the parole board asking them to defer my parole hearing until I had an opportunity to complete the relevant programmes and demonstrate a reduction in risk. This letter was supported in writing by the prison staff but the parole board refused. They said I had to go ahead with the hearing even if I didn’t want release. The outcome of the hearing was exactly what we all expected. A ‘KB’. A Knock Back. But I didn’t take it badly. I had expected it anyway so I told myself that, now I was nineteen and had been transferred from juvenile prison into the young offender (18 to 21) estate, I could get on with the courses I needed to do and really prove myself. And at first I did. There was the odd problem, such as being placed on report for shaving my head (it’s against prison regulations to change your appearance without permission), but nothing major. I also completed all of the courses recommended for me with largely positive reports.
However, in 2007, it was decided that the psychologist at that prison didn’t understand the reasons I gave for the motivation behind my offence. She said that the reason I gave was irrational. The strange thing about this, as I explained to her, was that it was whilst doing the unaccredited programmes just a couple of years previously that the psychology team had told me that this was the motivation, and asked me to consider it. After some consideration, I agreed that this was probably the case, and explained to the psychologist that the reason the explanation is not rational, was because I was not thinking rationally at all when I committed the offence. You’ll notice that I’m not going into specifics here. This is because I don’t want to write anything which may lead to distress for any of the people affected by my crime. But I can give you an analogy. If I were to say that I committed the crime because I believed that the sky would fall in if I didn’t, then that would be an irrational statement. But it would not necessarily be untrue. The psychologist believed that, because the reason I gave for offending was irrational, it must be untrue or incomplete. Frankly, she was wrong. But it was too late by then. As a result of that belief, she recommended that I undergo a PCL-r test (a psychometric test designed in the States which has been the subject of fierce criticism as well as fierce defence. There are many articles about the test online if you are interested in reading about it further and I would personally recommend the writings of Dr Bob Johnson on the subject). This test was done and the report was compiled by the head of psychology at that prison who concluded that I scored 29.4 out of 40 (higher than 94% of male English offenders). As a percentile ranking this is very high and it can be a sign that the prisoner is suitable to be assessed for a personality disorder. However, the head of psychology explained to me that, in my case, such an assessment was neither necessary nor appropriate because my high score on the PCL-r was derived from information at the time of offending at the age of just sixteen when the personality has been found to have not yet fully formed. He said it would be unethical to diagnose a disorder based only on information from a time before it had fully formed. On that basis he said that I should not be assessed for a personality disorder but I was suitable to be moved from the young offenders estate to the adult category C (medium to low risk) estate, where I should engage in one to one work with psychology. He also repeated this recommendation at my second parole hearing the following year, both verbally and in writing. The parole board themselves agreed with him and stated in their letter informing me of the decision that I did not meet the criteria for a DSPD unit (a unit dedicated to the treatment of personality disorders).
But not everyone was on the same page. In December 2008 I was called into a sentence planning meeting which I had not been told would be taking place and which I had had no time to prepare for. The head of psychology was not there, but a number of people I had never met before were all sitting around a table with the lifer manager. He told me that he had telephoned a number of category C prisons and that he had been told that they could not accept me because I needed to go to a DSPD unit. As you might expect, in the light of the parole board and the head of psychology’s recommendations, I was horrified and more than a little distressed. It seems that Category C prisons had taken one look at my high PCL-r score and, knowing that most people who score highly require an assessment for personality disorder, they had asked the lifer manager if this was not the case for me. Not knowing the background, the lifer manager had merely asked if that was the normal procedure and, when told it was, immediately convened a meeting to arrange my transfer to the nearest prison with a DSPD unit, HMP Frankland. I was already twenty-three and I had been kept on at the young offender’s prison only for my parole. They decided that they wanted rid of me as quickly as possible. I was transferred to Frankland in January 2009.
When I arrived at Frankland, a high-security prison for category A and B, high risk prisoners, I was asked what category I was. Like all prisoners in young offenders prisons, I had officially been category X (uncategorised) up until then, but the only written recommendation I had was for category C, so that’s what I said. The officer said no, I had to be either Cat A or Cat B, which was it? I explained to him and he simply said “I’ll stick you down as Cat B then.” And that’s what I’ve been ever since. When I got onto the wings and did my psychology induction, they said that they had been told I had been sent there to go onto the DSPD unit for assessment. I showed them the paperwork I had saying that I didn’t need to do this and, at last, common sense prevailed. Or so I thought. They accepted what I had shown them, removed DSPD from my sentence planning targets and, a few months later, they even wrote a report for my third parole hearing repeating that I was suitable for lower category conditions where I should complete one to one work with psychology. This parole hearing went ahead and again the parole board agreed.
Immediately I submitted an application to the psychology department asking if I could begin the one to one work immediately and whilst still awaiting transfer to a lower category prison so that I could demonstrate some of the change I had made over the past few years. The reply I got said that they would refer me to the monthly psychologists meeting for consideration. It later emerged that, at this meeting, my case had been brought up and they had decided that one to one work with a psychologist was ‘too resource heavy’. In other words, they didn’t want to pay a psychologist to sit with a single prisoner when they could keep that psychologist on group courses with twelve prisoners and get value for money. Instead they decided that, despite all of the previous recommendations, and with no decline in my behaviour, attitudes or thinking, they would reconsider the possibility of a DSPD unit and let my treatment come out of someone else’s budget.
I was livid. There was no justification for it and they didn’t even attempt to make one up. The only reasons they could ever come up with were 1. That I had scored highly on the PCL-r (to which I replied that the author of that PCL-r had ruled out DSPD himself, so this could not be used as justification), 2. That some of the reports completed in 2002 before I was sentenced indicated that I might have been developing a mental illness or personality disorder (to which I replied that this was seven years previously, drastically out of date, and contradicted both by other reports at that time and by more recent reports since), and 3. That ‘DSPD has never been officially ruled out, so you can go there to see if you need to go there.’ (To which I replied that the paperwork from the parole board showed that actually DSPD had been ruled out two years previously and, in any case, you don’t go somewhere to see if you need to go there, you look at the possible reasons for going there and, if they justify it, you go, if they don’t justify it, you don’t go). Nevertheless, the psychology department refused to accept those arguments and offered no reasonable explanation for this decision whatsoever. They merely stated that they believed that I needed to go, so it would stay on my sentence plan as a target until I agreed.
You might wonder why I didn’t just agree to go, attend the unit, get found unsuitable, and then move on. Under the advice of my solicitor and of the parole board themselves, I could not agree. DSPD treatment can take up to seven years. It’s meant to be quicker, but it almost never turns out to be. Seven years treatment to prove that I didn’t need it to start with? That was just too much. But I didn’t refuse. I said then, and I’m still saying now, that I will gladly go to a DSPD unit just as soon as someone can explain to me why I need to and why, when the head of psychology at the young offenders prison explained to me and the parole board the reasons why I didn’t need to go there, why he was wrong. It makes no sense for me to have a reasonable explanation for why I don’t need to go, no reasonable explanation for why I do, and for me to then agree to go anyway.
When my fourth opportunity for parole came around in 2011 it remained unresolved, but psychology didn’t even bother to write a parole report, despite theirs being the main recommendation on my sentence plan.
What I did have was a report written by an independent psychologist who assessed me at the request of my solicitor. She did a second PCL-r on me and found that I scored significantly lower than the one completed by the prison service four years earlier. In fact, I scored just 16 out of 40. She justified this much better score on the basis that, as the head of psychology at the young offender’s prison had himself admitted, his report went mainly on information from the time of offending when I was just sixteen and thinking irrationally. My independent psychologist, on the other hand, had taken account of the evidence of change in the decade since then and found that there was evidence to justify a reduction in score to reflect the changes I had made. She also assessed me for the presence of personality disorders and found that there was no evidence for any of these whatsoever. She concluded that I would benefit from attending a therapeutic prison such as Dovegate or Grendon rather then attending a DSPD. I sent this to the parole board and was granted an oral hearing (where the prisoner and staff from each prison department appear in front of a parole panel and answer any questions they have). The hearing was comprehensively documented in the letter that the parole board sent to me to inform me of their decision. The following are extracts from that letter:
“In 2007 a PCL-r was conducted scoring you at 29.4. You told the parole panel that the author of this report had told you and told a panel of the parole board who heard of your case in 2008 that you were not suitable for DSPD. This was confirmed by the decision letter of the parole board dated 2008 which said ‘At present you do not fulfil the criteria for the DSPD course’. This letter did not appear in the parole dossier prepared by HMP Frankland. The dossier contained an inadequate summary of that parole board hearing. During the hearing, the psychologists in their evidence were unable to identify any matters which had arisen since that assessment which justified any alteration to it or the basis on which they have now considered you suitable for referral for DSPD services. The panel was concerned that the psychologist appeared to be unaware of the well-established criteria for DSPD or for a therapeutic community.
“In a report dated 2009 the prison psychologist recommended that you be transferred to a lower category prison where you should undertake one to one work.
“A sentence planning board in 2010 set you the target of completing a DSPD assessment. In a report dated 2011 the prison psychologist said that you would benefit from assessment at a DSPD unit. There was no clear rationale for the apparent change in recommendation between the two reports. You have shown reluctance to complete the DSPD assessment because you say that no one has explained to you why, having been told that DSPD was not appropriate for you, it has become appropriate.
“In a report prepared by your independent psychologist dated 2011 you were assessed as having a PCL-r score of 16. She thought it unlikely that you suffered from personality disorders and considered that a therapeutic community would be more appropriate to your needs than a DSPD unit or one to one work.
“It appeared to the panel from the evidence of the prison psychologist that the prison psychological department, although aware that you were in all probability unsuitable for DSPD unit have resolved that you should be assessed for such a unit. It also appeared that what the panel was told was the written policy of HMP Frankland, that if a prisoner refuses to do or be assessed for DSPD that will not impede his progress, was being ignored. It was of concern to the panel that you have not been supported in engaging in any alternative work whilst you have been awaiting the outcomes relating to DSPD. The prison psychologist informed the panel that it was the procedure of the psychology team not to permit you to do such work when they had referred you to DSPD. As the panel understood the position this contravened the written policy of HMP Frankland; a contravention for which the panel was given no explanation.
“The panel is satisfied that you present continuing areas of risk but it agreed with your independent psychologist that it was not easy to identify precisely what they were. The fact that you were age 16 when you first went into custody and have been detained first in young offender’s institutions and then in high security establishments since that age makes the task of identifying your risk factors unusually difficult.
“The panel found your independent psychologist’s report persuasive and did not see any convincing evidence that a DSPD unit was appropriate to your needs.
“The panel does not consider that your risk can be managed in the community or in open conditions. However, the panel wishes to make it clear that nothing in this letter should be taken as supporting any refusal to re-categorise you to a less restrictive regime.”
Subsequently, I received a letter from NOMS (the National Offender Management Service) who stated that:
“The Secretary of State has now considered the parole board’s recommendation and agrees with their view.”