The Licence Period For Political Prisoners
July 2008 saw my arrest for the liberation of over 120 imprisoned individuals and roughly £75,000 worth of damage caused to Highgate Farm, a vivisection laboratory breeder in Lincolnshire. Whilst many think of conviction and imprisonment as the result of capture in such actions, increasingly the state is using deprivation, both pre-trial and post-imprisonment as a weapon against political activists. Although I was finally released from prison in November 2010, it was not until April 2012 that my sentence finished. After my release from prison, I was forced to serve the remainder of the sentence ‘on license, under supervision in the community’ – in other words, I was on probation.
Officially, probation is meant to manage ex-prisoners and help them re-integrate back into society, under the auspices of ‘protecting the public’. However my experience, throughout prison and probation, has taught me that there is miniscule rehabilitation, and what exists, is negated by the system that contains it. Probation follows the role of the prison – it is designed to isolate and dehumanise the individual, marginalising them from society and perpetuating the cycle of imprisonment and ‘reoffending’ that exists in England today. The main aspect of probation is the regular appointments with a proclaimed ‘officer.’ It is difficult to summarise the entire probation period, as unlike police interviews, no record of accountability is made, but I think it is important to explain my experiences, so that people are informed as to what is being done in their name, and those that may find themselves undergoing such an experience have some idea of what to expect.
Throughout my time in prison I had virtually no contact with probation. On arrival at each prison I would be asked about the nature of my imprisonment and that was it – not one single official ever approached me to ask why I did what I did. The most memorable interaction I can remember was shortly after I had arrived in a new prison and was asked what the burglary conviction related to – when I explained that it was the liberation of over a hundred rabbits the lady couldn’t help but crack up into a fit of hysterics, only to excuse herself before shortly returning and apologising. However, because of the peculiarity of my case, my story was of deep interest to other prisoners – on a daily basis intrigued individuals would question me, and on a number of occasions whole education classes became dominated by debates that started with the question ‘you’re the animal activist, aren’t you?’ There were a lot of informative and sometimes humorous exchanges – from the gentleman who assumed they were ‘Rampant Rabbits’ to the one who told me that when he got out he was going to liberate some animals, ‘but something good, like a gorilla.’ Like the other prisoners, the system defined me by the events that had led me to prison. So, naturally after nearly four years of being treated only in this manner, the fact that in the past I have taken a stand for decent treatment for non-humans, has become deeply engrained and an important focus of my life. Now I am able to do so, it is second nature to return to the only thing I know; one of the greatest causes the world has seen: the fight for the rights of those living, thinking, feeling individuals that suffer the most abusive injustice purely because they do not walk on two legs nor speak a language humanity recognises.
The first time I was ever officially informed that after prison I would be under further obligation was the morning of my release. I was told to return to South London and meet with a probation officer by a certain time otherwise I’d be coming back. As I had very little previous experience with probation I approached it with an open mind and a willingness to engage. Not only is it important to treat the unfamiliar with respect, but a great deal can also be learnt through dialogue. However, the deep hostility towards probation that a lot of prisoners I lived with had taught me to be cautious. To give an example, during an induction period inside (when a new arrival is introduced to the particular institution) a lady from an outside group that deals with prisoners' complaints mentioned that she could speak to probation on behalf of the prisoners. The response from a room of thirty or forty was largely boos and jeers. Regardless, I held that as I had never really spoken to probation before, I should reserve judgement.
The person I met was to become the main officer I saw through my license period, but by no means was he the only person involved. Although on the surface he was a perfectly pleasant man without malice and enthusiastic and friendly; he lacked both the knowledge of my case and the wider context it exists in, as well as the intelligence to be able to satisfactorily converse with me. If I am honest, by the end, I considered him lazy and incompetent. I remember at my first appointment I mentioned that I might want to do some work at a greyhound rescue; his response was to ask me what a greyhound was. How was I meant to have meaningful conversations about such important subjects as speciesism and carnism with someone who lacked even a child’s knowledge of animals? Soon two key concerns of probation were made clear: firstly that they were very worried about negative press coverage and this would affect the way they handled their cases, and secondly they were very worried about newly released prisoners 'reoffending'. This attitude not only endorsed the idea that prison-as-a-deterrent does not work, but helped lessen its impact. This latter concern was confusing as anybody that knows me would tell you that my priorities upon release were drinking beer and listening to punk rock, not breaking the law!
The further obligation of probation did not stop with mere appointments – like most other released prisoners I was also given a license – a set of conditions that affect travel, work and life in general that you are forced to comply with under threat of reincarceration. The first condition on any licence is the vague 'be well behaved...' That behaviour is not defined anywhere and is left to the discretion of the probation officers themselves. I was informed they 'only need suspicion' that these conditions are breached to implement reincarceration. Effectively it is internment. With this threat ever present, building a relationship built on trust and respect proves difficult. My license was initially ‘standard’, meaning it was the basic one that every licensee receives, but approximately two weeks later as the probation officer’s demeanour changed, so did my license. According to him, the prison system hadn’t properly prepared my release and forgot a few things: I was now a MAPPA case considered ‘a high risk of reoffending’ and a ‘medium risk of serious harm to the public.’ Never was I given an explanation as to why the system had suddenly decided to consider me like this, but the impression that I got, validated by the probation officer's acknowledgement that there were “senior” people involved, was that up until then I had been treated as an ordinary prisoner. It seemed the police and perhaps Home Office bureaucrats had forgotten all about me and now they were making up for lost time. This new and drastic change meant that whatever work and plans I had made whilst inside to reintegrate back into society, upon my release had to be at least postponed, if not scrapped all together. My licence was to change four times in the immediate months. It seemed they were unsure what they were doing and how exactly to manage me.
MAPPA stands for Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements and is for those considered the most dangerous in the criminal justice system. There are three levels; one for highly violent individuals, one for sexual offenders, and the ambiguous ‘other’ category. As I quite literally wouldn’t harm a fly, I became the latter, as I’m sure a great many other political activists have, or will experience. The Multi-Agency aspect involves a whole alphabet soup of shadowy and secretive organisations including prison agencies, probation, government officials and various branches of the police. Once a month they meet to conspire and plot the life of an individual who is not even entitled to attend these meetings. The ex-prisoners and their reintegration back into society is not directed by the prison staff or low-level probation officers who they have regular dealings with and have built up some sort of relationship, but by faceless bureaucrats who have little understanding of the situation, a political agenda to eradicate any sort of dissent regardless of legality, and an inability to fully understand the impact of their actions. Along with this MAPPA status came further licence conditions – to keep me away from Highgate Farm, but they also stopped me possessing a mobile phone or using the internet. It is beyond me how someone trying to reintegrate back into a society like ours is meant to do so without the use of these things. The justification was that it would stop me looking at 'extremist' websites. As I do not know what 'extremism' is, I asked for some examples but probation couldn't or wouldn't tell me. It left me puzzled and wondering what other aspects of culture are they going to try and suppress? Music? Literature? Art? Perhaps soon we will see an English Ai Weiwei.
The biggest aspect of my licence was the fact that I was to 'notify [the probation] officer prior to any contact or relationship with individuals or organisations engaged in demonstrations or activity concerned with Animal Welfare or the Rights of Animals, unless otherwise instructed by your supervising officer.' It was an incredibly far-reaching and fanatical licence condition that the probation officer did not understand and could not explain. He was unable even to define what constituted animal welfare and 'rights of animals', though he maintained that it was perfectly clear. Generally, when challenged on issues of such matters he had two default responses; one was to shrug his shoulders and smile in an empathetic manner, the other was to say that he “understood this was all very hard and thought it was a good cause that I fought for, and that I just needed to keep my head down and then when it was all over I could go back to what I was doing.” This condition would make it difficult for me to contact potentially hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people given the English reputation as a 'nation of animal lovers.' Effectively, it was designed to stop me doing any activity involving non-humans, but the language it was written in disguised this. For in the eyes of the law it says that all that is needed is the approval from probation, not acknowledging that probation only has the responses: 'no' and 'ask again in a couple of months’ time.'
The justification for this MAPPA status was the seriousness of the nature of my conviction, yet all other animal rights prisoners released in recent years are suffering similar experiences. It has little to do with what you've actually done - more so the reason why you've done it. It is wholly political. I was described as 'manipulative' yet had 'shortfalls [in] making the right decisions and lack[ing] of assertiveness.' Not only was this incredibly insulting and disempowering to someone meant to re-establish himself within society, but it lacked any evidence or explanation. Of course, now with such a history on my record, the next time the authorities need to use me to make an example of the animal rights movement, no doubt I will be described as some sort of 'ring-leader' and finding someone from probation prepared to come to court and counter these claims will be impossible.
After two months of release, I was picked up by the police and returned to prison totally out of the blue. Two weeks later I found out it was because I had attended a small, peaceful picket of the Harrods fur shop. Apparently, this meant I was 're-establishing links with animal rights extremists' and holding a placard meant I was 'an active participant...as opposed to merely attending.' Whilst the two months spent in prison on recall is an article in itself, it did teach me some valuable lessons. Firstly, that probation were quick to condemn yet slow to reason. It shattered any credibility in the authorities’ claims that they 'protect the right to peacefully demonstrate' and finally, it was a clear illustration that I would not be allowed to live any sort of law abiding normal life. For regardless of how I acted, I would be persecuted for my beliefs.
On re-release I had the big wheel at the cracker factory come to see me; a Senior Probation Officer from the Central Extremist Unit was needed to do what the usual one wasn't capable of. From the outset he was aggressive and hostile and it was clear that he wanted to dominate the proceedings. I was told that I was a 'violent extremist' and that these licence conditions were purposely ambiguous 'to stop me working around them' which directly contradicted his colleague's claim. When I asked for some written clarification about the matter he got extremely defensive and bellowed 'I'm not going to sit here and write everything I say down.' Within probation there is a remarkable lack of recorded information but then evidence does lead to accountability. The conversation then moved onto a series of questions about myself in an effort 'to get to know me.' What sort of person judges someone before they have even spoken with him or her? He tried to provoke me; to push my buttons, but an introduction like that brought an end to any serious attempts at dialogue on my part. I pointed out the absurdity of these licence conditions, explaining that they would stop me from even putting a can of food in a rescue centre donation bin. With a smile on his face he agreed that they did, as if some sort of victory had been achieved. The pathetic nature of his character continued to come across in the 2 or 3 following appointments I had with him. After it dawned on him that he would not be able to goad me into some sort of reaction he tried a different approach: trying to act in stern, paternal manner explaining to me the realities of life. The usual bollocks of “I know where you're coming from – my auntie's milkman's nephew's ex-girlfriend's brother is a vegetarian and I once stroked a dog.” My refusal to engage lead to him advising me that 'I should decide what I wanted to be doing' but I explained that I did not see the probation period as being about my wants, to which he agreed. This type of empty rhetoric ran through probation and the different officers I saw. It quickly became apparent that they would say whatever sounded good at the time and routinely contradict or change their positions. He made all sorts of promises that were never fulfilled: the offer of a mobile phone, an activist legal advice manual and victim impact statements, but I knew as soon as he mentioned them, they were lies. It is strange sitting in a room being lied to, as in public life it is uncommon. Universally, it is almost impossible to find a culture that respects such dishonest behaviour. What concerned me though was not being able to distinguish whether they were purposely lying or whether it had become compulsive behaviour. This meant that assurances such as ‘ if I comply' and do 'well' on my licence period over time, the conditions would diminish, could not be taken seriously – they had no intention of doing that, the licence conditions were designed to keep me away from doing any work that helped non-human animals – they were using it as a further punishment after they failed to convince the judge to serve an ASBO. The senior extremist probation officer took it very personally when I refused to shake his hand, and later went on at length about his past life as if it was of interest to anyone but himself. Once, bizarrely, he inquired whether I was going to write a book and if so, I wasn't to mention his name. If meeting someone a handful of times is a great enough influence on your life that you record it in your biography then just think the effect of living with hundreds of other prisoners, day in, day out, has. Anyway, if I were to write a book, I'd probably get done for incitement.
There was never any structure or plan to the probations appointments. Every time I attended I was walking into a room unsure of what would be addressed. The reasons behind my imprisonment were barely touched upon – mentioned perhaps only once or twice. It seemed as if they did not want to discuss it. For the initial appointments there was a great deal of interest in my views on the recent student demonstrations at Millbank Towers. It seemed as if any sort of anti-governmental demonstration was of importance. As I have never been on a violent demonstration, have no interest in attending one, had little knowledge of the student fees cause and was not a student, I didn't understand the relevance. The prosecution of my case focused on the idea that the action at Highgate Farm was not a protest, but a serious attempt at disrupting a 'lawful business.' Now probation were acting in a revisionist manner trying to make out that I had some sort of issues with protests. Largely we had informal conversations about current affairs. Whilst I can understand my reaction to certain events and problems can give an insight into patterns of thinking that are important for probation officers to understand, the relaxed nature of these conversations seemed as if the probation officer was just trying to kill some time. On one occasion he spent forty minutes telling me about some American crime thriller novel he had read on holiday, only to repeat the conversation a month or so later, having forgotten he had told me all about it previously. He had some bizarre assertions when it came to the law; such as dog licences being a legal requirement and there being no clause of self-defence within English law. Even though I knew both of these claims were erroneous, I found It strange that the individual tasked with making me respect the law had an incorrect understanding of it. What else did he tell me that was just plain wrong? As for rehabilitation, I believe this consisted of one appointment with a private contractor involved in education whose, (whilst positive about my personal plans), main advice was to 'google courses,' and two group meetings with another private company; one to write a CV, which ain't much use if you've got nothing to put on it, and another one about interview techniques. The consensus from the ex-prisoners in the room, on the knowledge that failure to declare a record once asked is a criminal offence, was that they wouldn't admit to their records. The probation officer also advised me to mislead the Jobcentre about my circumstances so that I could claim benefits. On numerous occasions I would turn up to probation appointments, only to be there for a number of minutes whilst the next appointment was scheduled. Once, during winter I turned up only to be told that a memo had come through from head office telling probation officers not to keep people too long as the heating hadn't been turned on yet! To anyone who has experienced prison and its systematic heating schedule, this is a joke. However, every appointment would start in a similar manner, with the probation officer asking me if I was okay and if there were “any problems.” I would use this opportunity to explain that the only problems I had in my life were being caused by probation itself.
It seemed to me that they were trying to do everything within their power to make my life as difficult as possible: to stop me from working, studying or doing voluntary work, separating me from my family, friends and my culture. Dismissing the things that were most important in my life. It was about taking away all avenues of choice yet holding me up as solely responsible for every decision that I would make. It dawned on me one day – I didn't have a mobile phone, I couldn't socialise or publicly express my views, and any work I did for the animals had to be done clandestinely – that probation were turning me into some sort of fucking 'sleeper cell'! On top of that there is an uncertainty about life that the threat of reincarceration inspires. For example, a newsagent once challenged a twenty quid note I handed him on the suspicion that it was a fake – if he had called the authorities, without any due process or guilt being established, I could had been reincarcerated. It is this wider abuse of ex-prisoners, coupled with the experience of prison, that in my opinion encourages the high levels of reoffending we have in this country. However, once I got my head round living like this, I would appreciate the irony of it all – it became a period of politicisation; being careful, watching what you're doing, focusing all the time on animal rights issues, permanently prepared for arrest – it is the perfect discipline, no doubt, for those engaging in direct action.
I would regularly explain to the probation officer that there was a great deal of onus on him; he only had a limited time and that he should use it productively: to engage, to explore ideas and find some mutual ground where we could both understand and learn. He was under the impression that my sitting in a room for ten minutes every now, and then and threatening me with imprisonment for anything the authorities took a dislike to, was going to have some sort of drastic effect on my political beliefs. However, I had seen this problem many times before; that people who have little understanding of what they're doing often carry out the punishment of the convicted. They judge others by their own standards and whilst they lack backbones and integrity, their opposition has an incredible strength fortified by the righteousness of their cause. In my life, I have the pleasure to say that I have met some of the most decent, caring and thoughtful people imaginable and have experienced true acts of giving and selflessness. People that have sacrificed great chunks of their lives to helps others without reward or even acknowledgement. Compared to this, the altruistic claim of 'protecting the public' made by lazy and disinterested probation officers is plainly insulting. The very nature of my conviction, the SOCPA 145 charge that affords heightened legal protection for those involved with vivisection, made a clear distinction between the abusers and the general public. In fact, you would be hard pushed to find even a sizeable minority of the public that was aware of, let alone supported, the fact that animal liberationists are receiving long and disproportionate sentences for non-violent acts of compassion.
The logic of probation argues that licence conditions along with their work are needed to stop people reoffending. If ex-prisoners complete their licence period without incident, it is down to the work and influence of the probation officer. Yet, if they offend, that work and influence is forgotten about and the responsibility falls on the ex-prisoner. Therefore, the only independent decision an ex-prisoner can make is to offend. It was a conscious thought in my mind to do some provocative law breaking purely in protest of their work, but in situations like this, the bigger picture needs viewing. For me, probation was biased from the onset– their role was to serve the police and other nefarious organisations and implement whatever they wished, under the cover of the 'rehabilitation' and 'public protection' that probation claim to represent. Probation has little concern about the lives of the people it manages. It has neat little labels and classifications, and individuals are described and explained, including flaws in their characters, by people that have never even met them. It has no interest in listening or addressing the needs and concerns of the people under its management, just as along as they keep their head's down and tread the well worn path of “I've learnt my lesson and won't do it again” then probation are happy, despite the fact that the UK has some of the highest prison numbers and reoffending rates in Europe. Any criticism or questioning of the system however can be explained away by mudslinging; “well, of course they're causing trouble, they're an extremist after all.” The use of such a term is designed to cloud the issue and distort any debate. This label does not come with conviction and evaporates upon the completion of a sentence, but exists independently, related to political belief. After all, you pitch a tent outside St. Paul's and you're considered a 'terrorist' these days. As I will always be considered and described as an extremist, there is little incentive for me to change my ways. However, the only place 'extremism' exists is in the minds of these sad little people whose lives revolve around fearing any story of different culture or grass roots opposition. They know that if they were to attempt to answer the question of why reasonable, decent and intelligent people are prepared to break the law like others who were lionised by eternity, they would find themselves looking in the mirror, and at the injustice and inequality they perpetuate.
As they have failed in breaking the spirits of animal liberation prisoners, their repression will escalate. Sadly, they seem intent on making an example out of political prisoners, so we must be prepared to become examples as prisoners. It is not a prospect I relish, but history shows that struggles within the prison environment have wide reaching effects on the outside world. I would encourage people not to co-operate with the probation service. No one should wish to be a martyr and act in a manner that risks further punishment but a balance can be found. Stick to your conditions, but refuse to engage during appointments. Without question, in the last few years our movement for a kinder, better world based on respect for all life has taken some blows from those that care for little else than dirty money, but we should never let the force of their blows distort the strength of our movement. It is important in times like these that we refuse to be subdued, that we think critically, and redouble our efforts to stop the appalling tyranny and violence that is waged against all life. It is part of any struggle to suffer casualties – in a country like ours where peaceful protestors are killed or imprisoned, imprisonment is something that many activists should be prepared to face. It is nothing to fear, and a good prior-knowledge of life behind bars can help someone have a useful and productive experience. I have no prouder boast than to say that I stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the most courageous people in society and fight with them for a gentler world, where all life, regardless of species, race, sex or persuasion has the potential to live the free life they desire.
Free the animals,
Free the prisoners,
Former political prisoner, April 2012
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