Charles Bronson: a lesson for the Parole Board?
In the next day or so, a prison officer at HMP Woodhill in Milton Keynes will deliver a brown envelope addressed to “Mr Charles Salvador”.
Inside, there’ll be a letter containing details of the outcome of his parole hearing which took place earlier this month. The contents of that letter are unlikely to come as any surprise to those who watched the proceedings by video-link at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.
Salvador, whose birth name is Michael Peterson and who was previously known as Charles Bronson, will not be granted parole (released on licence). He has spent most of the past 50 years in custody, has an appalling record of violence, including towards prison staff, and although there are signs he has mellowed in the last few years and is better able to control his anger and frustration, the evidence was clear: he is not ready to be let out.
Neither I suspect will the three-member parole panel which heard the case recommend that the 70 year old be transferred to a category ‘D’, or ‘open’, prison, with less stringent security and the opportunity to spend time in the community. Salvador is currently being held in Woodhill’s close supervision centre; he is locked in his cell for 23 hours each day and allowed to mix with just three other inmates. Any move to open conditions would have to take place only after he’d been tested for an extended period of time in a more normal setting, in a closed prison.
The conclusions that the parole panel are expected to reach, therefore, are not rocket science; they’re just common-sense. Did it really require a three-day hearing - the eighth since Salvador has been in custody? Parole hearings are not cheap. In Salvador’s case, an extensive dossier was prepared for the panel members; lawyers, representing him and the Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, were present throughout; witnesses, including psychologists and prison staff, were called to testify; and at least two prison officers were in attendance for security reasons. It must have cost tens of thousands of pounds.
Prisoners serving life or an indeterminate sentence, as Salvador is, are entitled to a parole review once they have served the tariff, the minimum term of their sentence. If their request to be freed is refused there’ll be a further review within two years, and every two years after that if they are still in custody. Sometimes decisions are taken ‘on the papers’ by a Parole Board member, by analysing relevant information, but they frequently involve oral hearings.
In Salvador’s case it would have made more sense for prison managers to get together to work out if he could be safely moved out from the close supervision centre and, if so, where to and over what timescale. Those were not questions for the Parole Board to determine; its job was limited to considering release or a move to open conditions. Both are clearly a long way off.
During the proceedings, which at times bordered on the farcical, I kept thinking about the victims of Salvador’s crimes. One of them, former prison governor Adrian Wallace, reportedly told the Board that he still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and flashbacks - 29 years after Salvador took him hostage. Have Wallace and the other victims been afforded a review every two years to see how they are coping and what support they might need? Of course not.
It's right that there are regular checks on prisoners’ progress in custody and that efforts are made to rehabilitate and prepare them to lead a crime-free life in the community. But the perception, and I fear the reality, is that the needs of victims are not given equal consideration, particularly in the long term. That is dangerous because it chips away at confidence in the criminal justice system. Measures announced this week in the Victims and Prisoners Bill, to bolster victims’ rights, do not go nearly far enough.
It is to the Parole Board’s credit that it allowed Salvador’s case to be screened to the media and some members of the public, as it did with Russell Causley’s parole review, and gave the BBC access to hearings for a recent TV series. It has shone a light on a vital part of the criminal justice system that previously existed in the shadows, highlighting the meticulous way in which Parole Board members go about their work. If only other justice agencies were as transparent.
But the coverage has also raised serious questions about the way the Parole Board operates, not least as to whether reviews every two years are strictly necessary and if so many hearings are required. I don’t know the right answer to these questions but it might help the Board to advocate plans for a more focused role - assessing the risk of prisoners with a realistic prospect of release, rather than a theoretical one. Developing its own ideas for the future could stave off the very real threats to the Board’s independence from proposals in the Bill which would give the justice secretary a veto over release decisions in high-profile cases.
The plans risk politicising the parole process and adding an unnecessary layer of complexity to it: they are a distraction from the fundamental problems in criminal justice - heavy caseloads, investigative delays and court backlogs, mainly due to a long-term lack of resources.
But unless there’s a snap general election or the Bill runs out of parliamentary road the parole changes will almost certainly become law - just in time for Charles Salvador’s next bid for release.