This was an event for predominantly indeterminate sentenced people held at HMP Coldingley which was organised as a two-part Q&A session with a number of panelists from the Parole Board, Public Protection Casework Section policy section, Prison Reform Trust and other lawyers.
It allowed the people detained to ask questions directly of the very people involved in it, about the parole process in general, and the recent policy changes and issues affecting them. Two lifer representatives hosted the sessions diligently and passionately, and other representatives were able to ask questions for those who were unable to.
What stood out for all of us, was now brilliantly those at Coldingley advocated on their own behalf and asked important questions.
It became readily apparent that a lot of the men were pre-tariff life sentenced prisoners who were either going through, or shortly going through, the pre-tariff review stage and had been affected by the recent policy changes with respect to the parole process and the updated Secretary of State’s directions to the Parole Board on the test for open conditions.
Some were serving extended-determinate sentences, frustrated that policy changes have meant their eligibility for open conditions post-dates their eligibility for release date.
It was effective for those within the Public Protection Casework Section to see and hear from those detained directly, something that they will rarely get an opportunity to do.
In our view, the impact that that process had was important, as it saw changes in real life format, and that the changes affect real human people.
A lot of people aired their concern over the fact that the test for open conditions was now being applied during the pre-tariff sift process and was being used to reject people even going for their pre-tariff review by the independent Parole Board.
They shared the legitimate expectation they had at the start of their sentence - that they would likely progress to open before tariff expiry if their case justified it - and how this has changed.
It would seem the effect of these changes are that people are more unlikely to progress to open pre-tariff, or in general, and there was certainly concern from those detained about the effect on prospects of future release.
Through discussion with the panel, it was clear some viewed that we may be moving into a position where a staged progression through the system, and so open conditions before release, might no longer be the ‘traditional’ route any more and it may be that people end up being directly released from closed conditions.
People were passionate about the “public confidence” criteria that the Secretary of State consider in looking to approve a recommendation from the Parole Board, and clear concern that this was just really another word for “Is this decision Daily Mail proof?”
It was clear that it is uncertain what public confidence might mean.
A lot of men were passionate about not being judged entirely on the actions of their past, and the change and progress they had made taken into account fairly and properly. This led to a discussion about potential public hearings, and that despite natural concerns with these, this may lead to an increase in public confidence in the parole system in general - as people will know more about it; and that people really can change.
Further discussion also centred around what those in closed custody can do in their current environment, if, for example, a move to open conditions has been refused pre-tariff or even on tariff, in terms of preparing for a further review by the Parole Board.
It was clear the recent changes, not just to the test to open but the changes regarding prohibition of recommendations from HMPPS witnesses and the Secretary of State’s single view procedure, were of concern to the men at the event. Some of the panel members shared their view that these are ideological changes that seek to encroach upon the independence of the Parole Board, and it was mentioned that there is a challenge coming through the Courts with respect to this.
Overall, we felt this was an important event to be involved in that not only furthered our knowledge, but also enabled us to engage with a variety of stakeholders in the system, and speak directly with clients, colleagues and staff within the system about changes to the system.
We were delighted to be invited by HMP Coldingley and look forward to future events.