First report: an ex-prisoner maintaining innocence writes about his experience as a determinate sentence prisoner.
Second Report: PPMI Annual Report2019.
My experience as a prisoner maintaining innocence
I was fortunate that my sentence was a standard determinate one, so that my automatic release date was set at the half-way point -”10 years serve 5”. Thus I wouldn’t be dependent on the Parole Board to sanction my release, and my maintenance of innocence couldn’t affect my release date. It did, however, have some effect on the security category I was allocated to through my sentence, and thus on which prisons I served my time in.
The probation officer who wrote my pre-sentence report suggested that I could be given one-to-one work to address my thinking skills, and be placed on the Building Better Relationships course to tackle my propensity for domestic violence. These goals were incorporated into my sentence plan. When I was detained at HMP Elmley from 2014 to 2017, I was deemed by OMU/Programmes to be unsuitable for BBR because of the lack of violence in the offence I was convicted of; unsuitable for Thinking Skills Programme because I already had strong thinking skills; unsuitable for in-cell Victim Empathy Packs because I maintain my innocence. There was no one-to-one work available due to lack of resources. I therefore had no courses available for me to do. My sentence plan was rewritten to include only ‘pro social modelling’, which I think meant simply behaving well in custody, which I complied with.
(The then-SOTP was never put on my sentence plan, I think because I maintained my innocence so it would have been impossible for me to participate in. The rules say that nothing should be put as a sentence plan requirement unless the offender is suitable for it – although of course that rule is often broken, as it was in my case with BBR).
After my initial sentencing in July 2014, HMP Elmley categorised me as Cat C. However, after the Court of Appeal increased my sentence to 10 years in Nov 2014, I was recategorised to Cat B. This is correct use of the categorisation algorithm as set out in PSIs, because a sentence of 10 years or more puts an offender into Cat B. However, the algorithm is only supposed to determine initial categorisation decisions. After the initial decision the OMU is meant, over time, to take a more informed decision based on the individual’s risk of escape and risk to the public should they escape. By these criteria, I would argue that I should have been moved down to Cat D. At my annual recategorisation in 2015 I was maintained at Cat B. I appealed internally and then to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. My appeals were dismissed.
At my next annual recategorisation in 2016 I was again maintained as Cat B. The Oct 2016 decision notice, competed by a Band 3 OMU officer, explained the decision thus: “Mr N. has demonstrated a willingness to comply with prison rules/regime by remaining employed and adjudication free. The contiribution form received from him was very comprehensive. Since his last review a new OASys has been completed and the sentence plan target of BBR is on it. At this time I am unable to find any evidence that Mr N has applied for this course. His OASys still states that he is in denial of the offence for which he was convicted of. Taking into account all of the information available to me I am not reconenting progression . Remain Cat B.” I appealed internally, pointing out that:
• I had indeed applied for the BBR course, and been told I was unsuitable. Thus it should have been removed from my sentence plan.
• The PSIs state that I should be put in the most appropriate security category, not left in the one that the initial algorithm determined, and the appropriate category for me was C or D.
• The prison had tacitly admitted I was suitable for Cat C by leaving me in Cat C up until the point when the Court of Appeal increased my sentence.
• I quoted PS 40/2011 Annex D, stating that where prisoners have not had the opportunity through no fault of their own to attend offending behaviour programmes, or where they deny guilt, “the establishment must consider whether there is other evidence available which might indicate that the risk has been reduced”. My good behaviour and work record consituted such ‘other evidence’.
Amazingly, my appeal succeeded and I was recatted from B to C. It was stated on the new decision notice that the OMU now appreciated that not having completed offending behaviour programmes was not by itself to be taken as a reason to deny progression, and on that basis they were approving my progression. (The woman who wrote this was the same one who had turned me down a month earlier, and also turned down my previous year’s appeals. I wonder how many prisoners she wrongly refused for progression before being taught what the rules actually state.) My recat came just in time. I’d been on hold at Elmley for two years due to ongoing family court proceedings. Within weeks of my success in moving from B to C, the hold was lifted and I was shipped out – not to B-Cat HMP Isle of Wight where I’d been due to go, but instead to C-Cat HMP Littlehey.
Throughout my time in prison I made efforts to participate in an offending behaviour course. I told my Offender Supervisor at every opportunity that I was keen to be given sentence plan targets that were achievable, and to then achieve them. I did this following advice I’d read – I think it came from PPMI, SAFARI and/or FASO – that it was a good idea to participate fully in such courses where possible, in order to ‘show willing’ and achieve progression.
In 2016 the prison service suddenly scrapped SOTP, which could not be completed by prisoners maintaining innocence, and replaced it with two new courses, Horizon and Kaizen, which could. At Littlehey in 2017 I applied to do the Horizon course. There followed a lengthy period of waiting and assessment, until I was eventually offered a place on Horizon starting in Spring 2019 – only a few months before my release. My main motivation to do Horizon had been to complete it, get recatted from C to D on that basis, and spend the final few months of my sentence at an open prison. The timing made this impossible (and I learned that at Littlehey, determinate sentenced prisoners allocated to Horizon or Kaizen always do them within months of their release date. In one 12-month period, of the hundreds of C cat prisoners at Littlehey, only ONE was recategorised to Cat-D.) I weighed up whether to do Horizon anyway or pull out, and decided to go through with it on the grounds that ‘it can’t do any harm’. It was an interesting course, teaching variosu life skills such as assertiveness, selfconfidence, mindfullness, etc. Of the eight prisoners in my group, all cat-C adult males convicted of sexual offences, three or four of us maintained our innocence. There was no requirement during the course sessions to talk about one’s offence. We were asked to talk about past experiences, and some people chose to talk about times they’d offended, but others talked about different social situations that had no bearing on criminality.
I was released in 2019 and will be in the community on licence until 2024, unless I’m recalled. One small benefit of having one the Horizon course in prison is that I haven’t yet been asked toparticipate in any courses during my licence period.
Lessons I’ve learned
Based on my experiences, I’d advise prisoners maintaining innocence to:
• Read your Pre-sentence Report, Sentence Plan and OASys reports carefully. Challenge any errors immediately through the written complaints procedure. If your sentence plan recommends that you do courses or activities which aren’t compatible with you maintaining your innocence, point out that you’re not able to do it and therefore it shouldn’t be on your sentence plan as a current goal.
• Engage fully with your Offender Manager and Offender Supervisor – plenty of polite applications requesting meetings, explaining your enthusiasm to participate in any courses that are compatible with your maintaining your innocence.
• Put in a written submission ahead of each annual or six-monthly categorisation, if your prison lets you, explaining if your maintenance of innocence has prevented you from doing any courses they wanted you to do, and pointing out the alternative ways in which you’ve demonstrated reducing your risk.
• Appeal every rejection.
PPMI Annual Report 2019
A brief reminder of our activities over the last twelve months:
In November, all prisoners who have written to PPMI were sent a Christmas card with a letter giving news of the public meeting in December and asking them to tell us of any changes in their situation.
In December, we held our public meeting in a House of Commons committee room. Dean Kingham spoke about risk assessments and the way these can impact on the chances of making progress for a prisoner who maintains innocence. Dr. Tully, a forensic psychologist, gave us her – rather different – perspective on the issue, and two released prisoners, Cookie and Chris Osborne, spoke movingly about their experiences. This was followed by a lively discussion. At the meeting were: ex-prisoners, family and friends of prisoners, representatives of a number of organisations and groups who are concerned with miscarriages of justice, law students, solicitors and others. The occasion was a useful opportunity for people from different back-grounds, but who shared our concerns, to meet and talk and PPMI made a number of new contacts. Arranging a successful meeting of this kind involves a large amount of preparatory work. Many thanks to all who contributed.
In January, some of us attended the first public meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on miscarriages of justice. As with our own meeting, this was attended by a wide range of people, demonstrating the strength of feeling about and interest in the issues. We heard from 3 excellent speakers about the very serious problems that can be faced by someone who has won an appeal, after release.
The meeting was preceded by an informal get-together, arranged by MoJO (Miscarriages of Justice) Scotland. This resulted in a number of new contacts with Scottish prisoners,and Sue and myself have had to do some work so that we can understand how the Scottish system relates to the English system.
In February, Sue had a meeting with Ryan Harman of the Prison Reform Trust, for us to learn more about what they do and for them to get to know about our work. Sue also discussed possible improvements to their information leaflet for those maintaining innocence.
In March, Sue and Bruce joined Gloria and others from JENGbA, for a demonstration about Kevin Thakrar outside the Ministry of Justice.
In April, Sue and myself met Ashley Mote to discuss how he could assist us in preparing submissions for the All Party Parliamentary Group and other publicity material. Also, Danny Barrs wrote an information sheet for determinate sentence prisoners who maintain innocence and this is now available on our website. Thanks to Danny for that.
In May, David Shaw resigned as our treasurer, after more than 10 years faithful service. Thanks to David from me and from all of us. Gerry McFlynn has agreed to take on the position. Thanks to Gerry for agreeing to this.
In June, Sue, Margaret and Gloria attended a meeting in London organised by Innovation of Justice. I am told that there were problems with the way the meeting was organised, but the idea of promoting contacts across a range of groups and individuals who share a common interest in wrong convictions, is clearly a good one. This was followed two days later by a vigil outside the Royal Courts of Justice. A large group gathered, there were banners, we all stuck tape over our mouths – to symbolise the failure of the authorities to listen to our concerns. There were speeches and photos and the event received some publicity. One woman, with a relative in prison who maintains his innocence, told me how helpful it was to realise that she was not alone.
Also in June, Inside Time published an article from me about risk assessments and maintaining innocence. In it I argued that the Parole Board accepts ways of measuring continued risk which assume, without evidence, that maintaining innocence is in itself a risk factor. Dean Kingham has written on this topic and he spoke about it at our December meeting, but the purpose of the article was to give the points wider publicity among the prison population, and also to encourage more prisoners to write to us at PPMI.
In July and September there were meetings of the Westminster Commission on the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which has been set up by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Miscarriages of Justice. These were attended by the usual suspects, Sue has made a submission for PPMI and she has copies for anyone interested.
Through the year, there have been visits to prisoners by Sue, Bruce and others.
Also through the year, Sue has received and replied to a large and increasing volume of correspondence from prisoners and, in smaller numbers, from their families. We now have contact with 300 prisoners, an increase of 60 since last year. Most of these have also completed our questionnaire.
Over the year, we have been doing a lot to get the word out about PPMI. Making sure that prisoners who maintain innocence, and their friends and families, know that we exist, that we know about the challenges they face, especially around making progress towards release, and we want to help. We have also raised our profile with other groups and organisations who have a concern about miscarriages of justice. All of this is important and I’d like to acknowledge the time and effort that many of you have put in to helping us get this far. It raises the question: where to do we go from here? We have other items to get through for our AGM, but the final item is ‘Future Plans’ and this will be an opportunity for us to discuss what we want to achieve in the next twelve months.
John Stokes. Chair