Probationary Tales

The last years of the Blair government saw a concerted attack on civil liberties and freedoms associated with political activism through increased legislation designed to criminalise protest. The police received greater powers to allow them to target activists and the lengths of sentences imposed by courts have swiftly grown.
In April 2012 I finished a three year sentence for my support of actions against the violent tyranny that is vivisection. Since my sentence finished I have been doing a small amount of work on some of the most extreme and fanatical, yet virtually undocumented, repression that is being used against activists: the legislation that is applied to them once they are released from prison. Without any professional legal advice, qualifications in Law or an understanding of the Orwellian jargon institutions like the Probation Trust use, not to mention their secretive nature, this this has proved somewhat difficult. Here, I am attempting to cast a light on the way political prisoners are treated when they are released from gaol. This is based on personal experience of that of myself and other people sharing similar predicaments, as well as the wider context of the treatment of prisoners in general by the Criminal Justice System.
Generally speaking, prisoners are released from gaol half way through their sentence. This is a legal agreement between the gaol and the prisoner. Technically, they are still prisoners but they have been allowed by the last prison they reside in to serve the rest of their sentence ‘in the community.’ For prisoners with sentences of a year and over, the time after their release from prison is ‘managed’ by the Probation Trust. There are two major factors[1] in the ‘management’ of a released prisoner: regular appointments with an ‘Offender Manager’ and a licence. Essentially, the licence is the contract between the prison and the prisoner that allows their release; standard licences have 6 conditions[2] and then provisions allowing the Secretary of State to vary the conditions as they wish and probation to initiate re-imprisonment if the licence conditions are breached (recall) or ‘you otherwise pose a risk to the public.’ However additional ‘bespoke’ licence conditions, relating to the reason of imprisonment, can be added to the licence. These can include prohibiting contact with certain people, requiring a person to either not leave or not enter certain areas, not to engage in certain activities, to undertake certain programmes (such as drug testing), to abide by a curfew etc. The licence remains until the end of the sentence, however the conditions are supposedly meant to be relaxed gradually over the period of licence.
Following the Criminal Justice Act 2003, Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) became a more forceful weapon to use against people who are released from prison. MAPPA is supposedly only reserved for the most dangerous prisoners, but as anyone with an experience of prison will tell you, there is a wide gulf between how the Criminal Justice System define dangerous, and what the popular understanding of the term is. There are three MAPPA categories. Cat. 1 is for Registered Sex Offenders, Cat. 2. is for violent and other sexual offenders and Cat. 3 is for ‘other offenders assessed as posing a risk of serious harm to the public.’[3] Whilst there is some confusion within the Criminal Justice System itself as to what constitutes violence – criminal damage, for example the act of spray-painting graffiti on a wall is erroneously classified by probation as a ‘violent offence’, and thus may allow a Cat. 2 categorisation, Koreen Logie, a Senior Probation Officer at the London Probation Trust notes that in reference to my case ‘according to the guidance, animal rights campaigners of this ilk should be treated as Cat[.] 3 MAPPA cases.’ This guidance probably extends to others the state considers ‘violent extremists’: environmentalists, trade unionists, anti-war activists, people that oppose the arms trade, anti-nuclear activists, justice campaigners, anti-fascists, civil rights advocates, anti-capitalists, anarchists, Welsh & Scottish separatists etc. Each of these three categories then works at three levels of ‘risk’ with 1 being the lowest risk the prisoner poses and 3 being the highest: ‘reserved for the critical few who present a risk of serious harm in the community.’[4] For those that are considered level 2 or 3 ‘risk’ cases a monthly panel meeting takes place, as well as emergency meetings, in with the Multi-Agencies come together and share information about the prisoner. These agencies will be directly related to interest in the specific case but can include representatives from Her Majesty’s Prisons, probation, the police, the Job-centre, ‘local education authorities, local housing authorities, registered social landlords, social services, strategic health authorities, Care Trusts and NHS Trusts, and electronic monitoring providers.’[5] In fact, the only person who cannot attend these meetings is the subject of interest: the prisoner being discussed! For political activists the Multi-Agencies will include government officials from such departments as the Home Office and Department of Work and Pensions, officers from the local police force and members of CO15 (Counter Terrorist Command) of the police. CO15 was launched in 2006 after a merger between the notorious Special Branch and the Anti-Terrorist Branch employing more staff and classifying political activism alongside murderous terrorism. The prisoner will be assigned a designated CO15 officer, who is routinely rotated, and who they never meet and have no direct contact with. The justification for why someone is considered such a standard is never explained, and precisely what happens at these meetings and what is discussed is never revealed.
Probation has little belief in the rehabilitative effects of prison and it seems the first month or so of a prisoners release is the critical stage for probation to judge a prisoner’s character. As licence conditions should allegedly be relaxed over time in proportion to the prisoner’s licence period so too should the MAPPA categorisation. I was on licence for approximately 22 months – soon after my release I was given a MAPPA 3 categorisation at a level 2 risk. After six months, and despite two of these months being spent in HMP Brixton after I was recalled due to an alleged licence breach, my MAPPA categorisation was ‘de-activated.’ However, I was never informed of this and throughout my licence period still assumed that I was being discussed at regular panel meetings.
Though MAPPA gets ‘de-activated’ it is of minor relevance. When it comes to political activists, the interest of probation’s ‘management’ is to isolate them from their culture and stop them politically organising and expressing their views. They will still keep in regular contact with members of CO15 to see if any new intelligence has arisen, such as photographs of a prisoner on a peaceful lawful demonstration that allows them to initiate a recall to prison. Any interest or movement towards political activity that is expressed to a probation officer then gets relayed to the designated CO15 officer. I asked repeatedly over a period of months to be allowed to volunteer at a local charity that provides low cost veterinary treatment for pet animals and never received a response further than “I still need to follow that up.” Subsequently it has emerged that the charity’s details were passed over to CO15 for investigation. Likewise, probation will also liaise with the local police’s Borough Intelligence Unit (BIU) to see if the prisoner has popped up on their radar; perhaps they stopped and searched him. Interestingly, the BIU may actually use a Google search to improve their intelligence. The ‘Offender Manager’ will also attend regular ‘Supervision’ meetings in which staff within probation itself will come together to discuss the ‘management’ of the prisoner. As with MAPPA, the prisoner cannot attend these meetings. At one of these meetings for my case Simon Cornwall, a Senior Probation Officer from the Central Extremist Unit of probation (which has now mutated into the Extremism and Hate Crime Unit) gave a lecture around that old chestnut of how animals liberated from farms and laboratories die because they are not use to the outside environment. I would love to see the evidence that supports this argument! Not only does this seem a rather crude attempt at ideological manipulation but an incredible use of resources, considering the unique circumstances of my case. Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately, I doubt probation has much call of interest in animal liberationists in South East London. Probation also wrote to the three Members of Parliament in my local borough relating that I had been released from prison.
Although it was never explained to me exactly why I was considered such a dangerous individual and such a risk to the public, subsequent research has revealed a few tricks probation will use to justify these standings. It appears one of the biggest reasons in my case was that the interest of ‘domestic and international media’ though I believe the sum media interest was that of two local, syndicated newspapers reporting my arrest and trial. Probation has never provided any evidence to the contrary. This media interest was encouraged to a large degree by the police. First they purposely released the address of an animal sanctuary I volunteered at as my home address so that it would receive unwanted press attention, and then during my trial a reporter would turn up towards the end of the day and liaise directly with the Detective Sergeant present to get the “scoop.” Media interest was constructed by the Criminal Justice System and then I was penalised as a result of it. In another case, a political prisoner was considered a ‘high risk to the public’ because they had used a megaphone on demonstrations, and they might, in the future, ‘intimidate people on a megaphone.’ Because of these reasons the CJS designates political activity as ‘dangerous’ and ‘serious’ posing a ‘high risk to the public’ and compares it to extremely violent offences like rape and murder.
Perhaps the most despotic aspect of the probation-prisoner relationship is the ability to place bespoke conditions on the licence. Within the initial months of my release I had four different licences, each one with more conditions than the last. I was never given any explanation as to why conditions kept getting added, but it seems as if they were trying to perfect the maximum amount of
conditions they could get away with to seriously impact on my personal life. Part of the conditions on any licence for political prisoners is, in the words of the licence itself, designed ‘to frustrate political activity and manage risk.’ Some political prisoners have found themselves forced to live in bail hostels, and attend daily registration, despite the fact that they have suitable family homes to live in, and there is an abject shortage of hostels forcing some general prisoners to sleep on the streets when they are released.
Finally, they settled on the additional licence conditions and they were as follows:
  • Notify your supervising 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.
  • Not to use a computer or other electronic device for the purpose of accessing the internet or have access to instant messaging services or any on line message board/forum or community without prior approval of your supervising officer.
  • Not to enter within one (1) mile of Highgate Farm, Highgate Lane, Normanby-By-Spital, Market Rasen, LH8 2HQ. Lincolnshire, without the prior approval of your supervising officer.
  • Not to use a computer or other electronic device for the purpose of accessing the internet or to have access to to any internet messaging services or other internet message board/forum or community without the prior permission of your supervising officer. You must permit reasonable access to any electronic devices to permit technical checks.
  • Not to contact directly or indirectly any employee or associates of Huntingdon Life Sciences in Woolley Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, without the prior approval of your supervising officer.
  • Not to own or possess or permit in your address any computer without the prior approval of your supervising officer.
  • Not to own or possess more than one mobile telephone or SIM card and to provide your supervising offer with the details of that mobile telephone, including the IMEI number and the SIM card that you possess.
Of course, these licence conditions had a huge impact on my life as someone whose entire adult life has resolved around relationships with non-human animals. The first condition is so vast and so vague it prohibits potentially tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of relationships and interactions.
It stopped me from attending vegetarian restaurants, making donations to charity, even reporting an animal in distress to the RSPCA. Heck, if I saw a crime taking place such as badger baiting or fox hunting I would be breaching my licence, and liable to recall to prison if I reported it to the police’s Wildlife Crime Unit. From the outset of these conditions I ceased to use a mobile phone as I understood that the licence turned a mobile phone from a tool of communication to a tracking device. The IMEI number is a unique code that identifies individual devices and if the authorities possessed that then they would be able to intercept my communications. The following year my views were substantiated when the Guardian published an article on the covert surveillance of individuals through their mobile phones.[6] I was simply not prepared to allow them to, and did not think it was right for them to, keep tabs on me as I corresponded with solicitors or went to the doctors for example. During the time of my licence period I was living at home with my family, and although this was encouraged by probation, however it posed a challenge for them as the house had a number of devices capable of accessing the internet and they do not yet have the power to limit family members access to these devices. They came to the compromise that I could live there but must permit them access to check these computers, with Simon Cornwall, from the Central Extremist Unit informing me that “if any material is found relating to animal rights, regardless of who has accessed it [such as a family member], you will be held responsible.” The licence granted them the power to re-imprison me for something I would have no knowledge of or involvement with.
At least in writing there is some limitation on the fanatical excesses of licence conditions. To comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, and its incorporation into law by the Human Rights Act 1998, the Ministry of Justice details that ‘[l]icence conditions should be preventative as opposed to punitive and must be proportionate, reasonable and necessary.’[7] Clearly the impact of the conditions above is none of these, but the careful wording of the licence disguises this. Most of the conditions have a suffix that states that these designated activities cannot be acted upon unless with ‘prior approval from the probation officer’, so in writing they are saying that in theory you can go and feed the ducks in the park, search for jobs on the internet, use it to research probation and your rights, or volunteer at a local dog shelter, as long as you notify the probation officer. However, when you actually start asking probation officers you find out pretty quickly they have no interest in even considering your requests. They will relate the information back to their handlers at CO15 and the police will direct them to say “no”. One political prisoner asked repeatedly to do work with animal charities and environmental groups which were denied with the provision from probation that they could work for ‘organisations involved in human issues.’ When a position was found with a non-partisan legal advice charity this was refused by probation as the directive had come through that the prisoner was not allowed to do anything for “a cause.”
After a number of requests I managed to tease out the case notes of my time on probation through a Subject Access Request under Section 7 (1) of the Data Protection Act (1998). Through reading this material it seems their belief of my risk in “reoffending” appeared to fluctuate between medium and high risk depending on my commitment to education and my attitude towards the licence conditions. When I showed participation in furthering my education they lowered their assessment. This was nonsensical as at the time of the action I was imprisoned for took place and during my subsequent arrest I was in full time education. In fact, it was probation’s colleagues in the Crown Prosecution Service with their fanatical desire to oppose all but the strictest bail conditions that meant for a whole year I was unable to continue my studies. Likewise, in the final stages of my licence it appears that unable to demonstrate how animal rights is an illegitimate cause their strategy was to convince me of the importance in peaceful and/or legal campaigning. This was negated by the fact that before my imprisonment I had collected petitions, written to newspapers, peacefully picketed, leafleted, run information stalls, worked at vegan outreach events, volunteered at animal sanctuaries etc. and their licence conditions meant they would imprison me for participating in any of these activities.
The issue is simple. Probation has too much power over a prisoner once they are released from prison. This power is then deferred to the police, who grind the organ to implement severely life curtailing restrictions aimed at disrupting and damaging the prisoner’s life so much that they are intimidated from continuing legitimate political activity. As the period on licence is the last part of the prisoner’s punishment, you would assume it is the time when the state takes a more measured view of them. They have received the judicial sentence and served their time within prison. All that remains is for the prisoner to reintegrate with wider society and to finally prove that they have been rehabilitated. As can be seen, this fairy-tail of the Criminal Justice System is a long way from the truth. Prisoners who have spent many months, sometimes years on strict pre-trial bail conditions without incident, and served their time in prison as model prisoners find that when they are released, as opposed to being reformed, the system has heightened their standing as dangerous individuals. The irony of it all is that for political prisoners, instead of resolving problems linked to activism and encouraging them to develop broader life interests, probation, and its interference by the police maintains the conditions for activism whilst simultaneous politicising the prisoner.
Currently, there are proposals to privatise probation in some areas, tending contracts to either private companies or community and charity groups, maintaining the public Probation Trust to work only with ‘high-risk offenders and public protection cases’[8] i.e. MAPPA cases and political prisoners. This means that it is unclear what will happen to political prisoners in the future and whether their experiences will be similar to mine.
Lewis Pogson
Former political prisoner
July 2013
[1] The ‘Offender Manager’ may also try and pressure you into seeing a drink and drug specialist or mental health specialist if they think these are relevant, but unless this has been directed by a court you do not have to entertain them. I met a psychologist once at the encouragement of probation and she tried to convince me to sign a form disclosing records of my entire medical history to her on the provision that she would “only share it with people who she thought it was relevant.” This coming from a total stranger could have been anybody, including the milkman.
[2] 1. Be well behaved, not commit any offence and not do anything which could undermine the purposes of your supervision, which are to protect the public, prevent you from re-offending and help you re-settle successfully into the community. 2. Keep in touch with your supervising officer in accordance with any instructions that you may be given. 3. If required receive visits from your supervising officer at your home / place of residence. 4. Permanently reside at an address approved by your supervising officer and notify him or her in advance of any proposed change of address or any proposed stay (even for one night) away from that approved address. 5. Undertake only such work (including voluntary work) approved by your supervising officer and notify him or her in advance of any proposed change. 6. Not travel outside the United Kingdom unless otherwise directed by your supervising officer (which will be given in exception circumstances only) or for the purposes of immigration deportation / removal.
[3] National Offender Management Service: MAPPA http://www.dtvprobation.org.uk/mappa/ (accessed 12th June 2013)
[4] National Offender Management Service: MAPPA http://www.dtvprobation.org.uk/mappa/ (accessed 12th June 2013)
[5] Devon and Cornwall Police: Public Protection Unit http://www.devon-cornwall.police.uk/AboutUs/SpecialistOperations/Ppu/Pages/default.aspx#null (accessed 13th June 2013)
[6] ‘Met police using surveillance system to monitor mobile phones’ The Guardian, 30 October 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/oct/30/metropolitan-police-mobile-phone-surveillance (accessed 5th July)
[7] Licence Conditions, Probation Instruction 07/2011, Ministry of Justice
[8] ‘Privatising probation service will put public at risk, officials tell Grayling’ The Guardian, 24 June 2013 http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/jun/24/probation-privatisation-warning-chris-grayling (accessed 5th July)
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