Kevin is serving a life sentence at a prison in the South of England. He is on the autistic spectrum and has significant learning disabilities. He has a parole hearing coming up next month. The hearing will be over two years late.
Kevin was convicted of an extremely serious offence over seventeen years ago. He has a ‘tariff’ (minimum term) of fifteen years which ended over two years ago. At that point he was entitled to try to persuade the Parole Board that they should release him on licence.
Kevin does not understand what parole means. Until he met a lawyer, he believed that he needed to complete the Maths and English courses he was doing in prison, then give his certificates to the judge who sentenced him. At that point he would be released to his old flat.
Over two years ago he received some paperwork he did not understand. Someone at the prison suggested that he talk to a lawyer. He was fortunate to find one who regularly visited the prison he was in. She read the paperwork he had been given. She discovered that he had spent ten years at the same establishment, most of the time alone in his cell and had not come to the attention of staff. It was obvious to her within minutes of meeting Kevin that he had learning difficulties. No formal assessments had been carried out and he had not completed any of the interventions that would be expected of a prisoner serving a life sentence.
The lawyer explained to Kevin that the paperwork he had been given was a set of directions made by the Parole Board for his case and that there would be an oral hearing at the prison. She told him what a ‘minimum term’ meant and tried to explain how a parole hearing worked. Kevin did not understand many of the words his lawyer used but he put his trust in her. She set about the laborious task of trying to get a meaningful parole hearing for him.
There are quite a lot of people like Kevin in prison. Some of them do not have a lawyer. Some have lawyers who do not approach their cases like Kevin’s lawyer. That might be because they do not have the expertise they need. It might be because the swingeing legal aid cuts imposed in 2013 act as a huge disincentive to spend the kind of time that these cases need.
In the criminal and family courts, there has been some recognition that steps need to be taken to safeguard the rights and interests of vulnerable witnesses and defendants. This development has not yet been mirrored in the closed world of prisons and parole.
What responsibility does the Parole Board and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service have towards people like Kevin?
What would it take for Kevin to have a fair parole hearing?
The National Autistic Society’s annual conference, Care and Treatment of Offenders with a Learning and/ or Developmental Disability takes place this week. I will be co-presenting a session with Yvette Bates from HMP Dovegate tomorrow morning at which we will be exploring the issues I have described here.
In the second part of this article I will set out what we might do to ensure we talk to as well as about Kevin.