The Categorical Imperative


HM Prison Wakefield, sometime home of prisoner Charles Bronson, credit Wikipedia

       The Categorical Imperative,

by Bill Hartley

For many years our prison system has operated on the basis of incentives. A prisoner who behaves himself can expect to earn remission on his sentence. For those serving longer periods of imprisonment, parole, also known as Release on Licence, may also be available. Part of this process involves engaging with the regime and actively preparing for release. If progress is made then during the course of the sentence the initial security category may be reviewed and downgraded. In turn, this may affect the type of prison to which the prisoner is sent. The majority of prisoners eventually move on to what are called Category C prisons; places not requiring the highest levels of security. What happens though, when an individual chooses custody as a career?

Periodically we are treated to a television documentary about some infamous criminal. These days those with real notoriety are thin on the ground or safely dead. There are a few left and the latest to get this treatment is Michael Peterson, better known to the wider world as Charles Bronson, though he has since changed his name once more. Peterson/Bronson wasn’t a particularly successful criminal since he was soon caught and imprisoned. The offences which actually got him into prison occurred decades ago. What makes him unusual is most of his subsequent crimes were committed whilst in custody. He is an institutional criminal, something that no prison system is designed to deal with.

Recently he was the subject of a two part documentary on Channel 4, broadcast ahead of his latest attempt to secure parole. Bronson is serving a life sentence, though unusually he hasn’t actually killed anyone. The sentence, with a relatively low tariff, was imposed after yet another hostage taking. He may be close to being unique in the history of the English Prison Service both for the duration of his time in custody (currently 48 years) and because of the problems he presents to management. His latest application for parole was held in public, something which his solicitor has campaigned for, though why this was considered to be significant wasn’t explained. The likelihood is that the Prison Service had nothing new to tell the Board.

For many years Bronson’s story has been staple fodder for tabloid newspapers. The documentary allowed a relative of the prisoner to recount with satisfaction how they had fed ridiculous and fabricated stories to the media, who duly reported them. Viewers were also subjected to the usual clichés such as how he has been kept in a ‘concrete coffin’ for years and the ‘System’ has tried to grind him down. No mention was made of the variety of ways in which a prisoner can complain about his treatment both internally and externally. The list is quite lengthy and if required to do so, the Prison Service would have to justify the conditions under which it has been holding Bronson.

Despite the fact that television cameras were not allowed into the high security prison where he is currently held, Bronson was still able to star in his own documentary, courtesy of video calls to a relative. Via this method of communication and some leading questions, the message he sought to convey ahead of his upcoming parole hearing was that although he has been a bad boy in the past, he is now a changed man and safe to release. Some of the things he had to say suggested that his personality hasn’t much altered. Maturity, though, has taught him a degree of self discipline. Without too many difficult questions being posed, the programme allowed friends and supporters to portray him as a ‘victim’ of the System.

At his trial the judge could presumably have awarded a fixed term sentence. Instead he was given a life sentence with a modest tariff of seven years. Bearing in mind his history of being a severe control problem when in custody, an indeterminate sentence would have put him on notice that good behaviour and cooperation would help earn his release. This failed to make an impact since as the programme explained, Bronson has gone an extraordinary eighteen years beyond his tariff and there have been seven previous unsuccessful applications for parole. The programme certainly never gave much consideration to what kind of person would do such a thing. Perhaps maintaining his position in the tabloid press as ‘Britain’s most dangerous prisoner’ may have something to do with it. He is still a category A prisoner, presumably because no-one would be reckless enough to alter his security status. From an outsider’s perspective he has paid a high price for maintaining his reputation.

Pursuing the theme of victim hood, the programme mentioned the frequency with which he has been moved round various prisons. This used to be known by prisoners as the ‘Ghost Train’, usually because the escort set off early in the morning before the prison was unlocked. It was known to management as the Shared Misery Principle. The point being that troublesome prisoners eat up large amounts of staff time and therefore one location can only be expected to tolerate so much of this, before it is the turn of another establishment. Far from being designed to oppress or demoralise a prisoner it is the way the Service copes.

Interestingly the programme makers chose not to consider Bronson’s status as a Category A prisoner. The designation is defined as someone whose escape would pose a threat to the public, the police or the security of the state. Bronson may be many things but he can hardly be described as an escape risk. Indeed after so many years in custody it may well be difficult for him to function in the outside world without support. The risk is internal not external. Category A may not be the most suitable label but it is the only one they have. The aim of the Prison Service training regime is risk reduction. As a prisoner’s security category is reduced so a greater degree of trust can be extended. In the case of life sentence prisoners the idea is to get them to category D status, so that they can be held in open conditions prior to release. The Parole Board can then be given something tangible upon which to base a recommendation. Clearly it was easier for the programme makers to simplify the situation, posing the question: what is the point in continuing to keep him in custody after all this time? The answer is that the regime has been created to serve the needs of the many, not handle a single individual who has been a menace in custody.

Bronson is now over seventy but despite this his latest application was refused. Given his age there is something of an irony here. Bronson’s Category A status and his location in a special unit, will now have as much to do with protecting him as anyone else. There are lots of younger prisoners who would relish the opportunity to take away his title. He is likely to be well aware of this.

William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service


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