Who Should Determine When Life Sentenced Prisoners Should be Released?
“The judiciary and law are responsible for trying and imprisoning life sentence prisoners, and the judiciary and law should assume the same responsibility in deciding the continued imprisonment of such prisoners”.
Should the composition of parole panels who decide on the release or continued detention of life sentence prisoners, in particular, be fundamentally changed to involve only legally qualified individuals such as lawyers and judges, thereby ensuring that the continued imprisonment of indeterminately sentenced prisoners is lawfully justified and not merely motivated by white middle-class cultural prejudice?
The role and purpose of the Parole Board in relation to deciding whether to sanction the release of life sentence prisoners who have served the retribution "tariff" part of their sentences, is to assess and decide if the continued imprisonment of such prisoners is justified in the interests of public protection. A range of Criminal Justice System professionals such as psychologists and probation officers assist and inform the Parole Board in its decision-making process, and the final decision of the Board is supposedly determined by the evidence and recommendations of such professionals.
Four prime criteria determine a decision to release life sentence prisoners: has the prisoner served a sufficient period of time to satisfy the interest of retribution? Has the potential risk to the public of the prisoner been sufficiently reduced? Can the prisoner be safely managed in the community? is the release of the prisoner likely to create an adverse public reaction? These are the fundamental criteria that supposedly inform the decision of the Parole Board when considering the release of life sentence prisoners, or at least the official legal criteria.
However, there is another criterion that in the thinking of most parole panels has an equally determining influence on their decision regarding whether to release a life sentence prisoner or not. Moreover, it often predominates over the other more official criteria and confirms what panels believe is the essential purpose of imprisonment, that apart from 'protecting the public' it should also instil total conformity and obedience in the prisoner. What essentially determines a life sentence prisoner's "suitability for release" and ensures their "risk-management" in the community is, "in the opinion of most parole panels, the ability and willingness of the prisoner to submit and conform totally to the authority of the prison system.
There has been some media-generated controversy recently over the Parole Board sanctioned the release of certain indeterminately sentenced prisoners convicted of horrific sexual offences against women. While other life sentence prisoners, who often share a "difficult relationship" with the prison system, are denied release by the same Parole Board, often for decades beyond the length of time originally recommended by the judiciary, even in some cases when those prisoners represent no risk or danger to the public. This suggests an irrationality in the decision-making process of the Parole Board. Or in fact, reflects a cultural opinion of most parole panels who believe the true purpose and role of imprisonment is not essentially "public protection" but more to discipline and punish the prisoner, and re-enforce the function of prison as an instrument of social control and instiller of total obedience to state authority. What would seem to determine a prisoner's "suitability for release", in the eyes of parole panels, is not levels of risk to the public, but levels of obedience to prison authority.
If there is a relationship between conformity to prison authority and risk to the public, then it is an inverse one. Prisoners who employ a conformist strategy of "playing the game" and submitting completely to the authority of those imprisoning them are least likely to change positively and more likely to "re-offend" and return to prison, whilst those prisoners who retain some personal integrity and self-respect, are often positively changed by their struggle in jail to retain those qualities. However, the real purpose of prison as an institution of social control is not to positively empower and change prisoners, but essentially to break their defiance to authority and reinforce their total dis-empowerment, regardless of how that might negatively impact on their ability and inclination to integrate back into society upon their release. The message sent to indeterminately sentenced prisoners by a Parole Board whose main criteria for release is total conformity and submission to prison authority is one that encourages and re-enforces the very personality traits manifested in the original "offending behaviour" of certain prisoners, thereby actually increasing their risk to the community and vulnerable groups within it.
Parole panels generally have a relatively stereotypical concept of the "criminal type": working class, especially black working class; offends against the private property; "anti-authority" and socially rebellious. Traditionally, sex offenders, especially middle-class sex offenders, have not been viewed by parole panels as "typical criminals" and are generally paroled at the earliest opportunity, as highlighted by the controversial John Worpole case. While a conservative middle-class culture prevails within parole panels neither genuine "public protection" or real justice in assessing life sentence prisoners for release will be treated as real priorities.
The judiciary and law are responsible for trying and imprisoning life sentence prisoners, and the judiciary and law should assume the same responsibility in deciding the continued imprisonment of such prisoners. Relinquishing that responsibility to legally unqualified middle-class reactionaries ensures both the continuation of a prison system massively overcrowded with indeterminately sentenced prisoners, many of whom represent absolutely no risk to society and the release of some offenders, who by their guile and manipulative behaviour, which in some cases characterised their original offending behaviour. Have been rewarded with release while remaining a real risk to certain vulnerable groups in society. While legally unqualified individuals continue to dominate parole panels and apply the "model prisoner" criteria as the most essential condition of parole those panels in themselves will remain a danger to the public, as well as serial human rights abuses of those who remain imprisoned despite representing no danger whatsoever to the public.
The parole system in the U.K is profoundly flawed and counter-productive because it exists as little more than a weapon of middle-class revenge unguided by a real legal principle or genuine concern for the ordinary public.
HMP Warren Hill
More of John Bowden's writings are available here.