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Last Updated: Monday, 6 November 2006, 10:40 GMT
Tough choices
Prisoners facing the parole board

By Louise Shorter
Producer, BBC Two's Lock Them Up or Let Them Out

When is it right to let out a prisoner? As new figures show a cut in early releases, television cameras have been given unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to see how the Parole Board decides when criminals should be returned to the community.

For the first time, television cameras take a close-up view of how the Parole Board decides on when criminals should be returned to the community.

I've spent the last two years talking to murderers, armed robbers and career criminals, a heroin-addled woman who nearly killed a male stranger, a man who made Molotov cocktails to fire-bomb his local police station, a drugs mule, a face slasher, a con artist.

All of them were convicted prisoners, still serving their time, but who believe they deserve to be released early for good behaviour on parole licence.

Since its inception in 1967 the Parole Board had robustly batted off hundreds of approaches by journalists keen to enter its secret world. This is the body which makes the difficult decision about when it is safe to release prisoners into the community.

Assault

But with proposals for a documentary endorsed by the then Home Secretary David Blunkett, the Parole Board became one of the last public institutions to take the final brave gulp to let in the television cameras.

Carl Williams
Carl Williams was jailed for murder when he was 21 years old

My first glimpse of life at the sharp end was a week at the board's headquarters in London, observing three Parole Board members deciding the fate of 24 prisoners.

This included the case of a man who'd attacked a stranger in her own home, repeatedly sexually assaulting her before forcing her on a terrifying six hour journey before raping her again.

I consider myself fairly hard to shock but sitting there that day, with the weight of the Parole Board members' responsibility dawning on me, I realised I wouldn't have been brave enough to let a single one of those criminals out and yet most of them, as non-lifers, will be free sooner or later.

Before we could start filming, we had to find prisoners prepared to go on camera to speak publicly and frankly about the crimes they'd committed and their behaviour in prison.

We sent information packs to about 4,500 prisoners who would soon be eligible for parole and hoped they would complete our questionnaires - not easy when about 45% of all prisoners cannot read or write properly.

Murderer

We were building our cases when we were allowed to go and meet Carl Williams - who had murdered a man when he was 21 and, now nearing 50, was still incarcerated.

PAROLE BOARD
Parole board
Independent body that makes risk assessments about prisoners' safety for release
More than 19,000 decisions made per year
Over 160 members, including judges, psychiatrists, probation officers and about 60 "independent" members from other professions

We were put in an office near Carl's 12 feet by 5 feet cell and waited for him to be escorted in. The shouts and catcalls of the other men reverberated around the vast space and I thought the door was about to open to reveal a shuffling old man broken by this grim life.

Instead, in bounced a Scouser in a Lacoste tracksuit who couldn't stop talking. Carl's crime had come out of a pub fight. He said it had happened at a time when Toxteth in Liverpool was known as Little Chicago. He said he regretted the fact a man had died but had given up hope of ever being released.

Over the years his reputation had grown until it preceded him in each of his 50 moves around the country's jails. But now he wanted to get out. An opportunity to train birds of prey to deter pigeons in a prison had given him a glimpse of how life could be.

But to get out he'd have to convince the three Parole Board members considering his case.

As a life sentence prisoner Carl would get to meet the board members deciding his fate and could argue his case in person. Most prisoners aren't so lucky, with Parole Board members deciding on a dossier of reports and statements alone.

Lifer

But as a lifer, Carl would meet them. His panel, or oral hearing, was held inside the prison. Chaired by a retired judge, sitting with two experienced Parole Board members, they listened to opinion and evidence from a range of experts who knew Carl.

John Reid
Home Secretary John Reid wants victims to be considered in rulings

The question at the heart of the matter was whether Carl could be released without risk of causing harm to life or limb of a member of the public. Could he "keep his arms by his side" as he described it, after 30 years in such brutal conditions?

Around a vast table sat the members, Carl and his barrister and solicitor and a succession of witnesses ready to be questioned. The decision of whether to release or not remains the sole preserve of the Parole Board but the Home Secretary gives his view and he did not think Carl should get out.

For an hour or more Carl sat listening as others described him, his behaviour, his prospects. The prisoners are not told the decision immediately but our cameras were allowed to remain when that final decision was made.

To decide whether any prisoner is safe to be released, each panel has to be sure that whatever lay at the heart of the offending - whether it's a drug habit, alcohol abuse or anger issues - has been identified, addressed and resolved.

In reaching such a decision, the judge in Carl's case told us that he thinks to himself: "Would I want to stand having a pint next to this person."

For Carl, the answer was "yes". Although the panel decided that he wasn't ready to walk straight out of prison - they recommended an open prison, where he would be prepared for release.

If he succeeds there, he should be able to go back to his family in 18 months time. By then he will have served 30 years.

Lock Them Up or Let Them Out, starting Monday 6 November at 2100 GMT on BBC Two.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

This is such a difficult debate to have. Whilst the rights of prisoners as humans can't be ignored, the rights of the person that, in many cases, was murdered have been removed, therefore, I think, negating the rights of the prisoner. Add in the rights of the family who lost a loved one and the circle of debate is likely to never end. I do not envy those who sit on these panels and in fact those who work in this environment, in whatever capacity. Hopefully programmes like this one will present facts that will enable the debate to become far more public and open.
Emma, Lincoln

The decision seems reasonable but surely Carl was more easily influenced at 21 than at 50 so it would seem to me that earlier intervension would have saved him fron becoming a prison hard man.
Jeanette, Rochdale

I think in cases where the person has been convicted for a sexual or a particularly violent offence; ie murder, permanent disfigurement, then the convict should never be released. If you deny someone the right to a full and free life then you too should be denied this right.
Bruce Menmuir, Kennoway, Fife

It is nice for once to see the safegard in the prision system that helps to ensure that prision is used for punishment and rehabilitation, and not transformed into political revenge.
Michael Shaw, Sheffield

Carl killed a man in a pub fight nearly 30 years ago - there but for the grace of god for quite a lot of people. It wasn't premeditated or commited in cold blood, yet he has served 30 years - the killers of Jamie Bulger are now out and have new names, identities and lives. Where is the justice in this feudal system of ours?
Matt, Cambridge

Never. If you can take a life once, you can do it again. A line is crossed and, once crossed, cannot be undone. The victim has lost all their rights, and so too should the criminal. I do not support the death penalty because mistakes can be made at trials, but it should be automatic life - and by life I mean full life. They can be freed at appeal if innocent. The duty is to protect the innocent public, even a 1% risk of someone reoffending is too high when you're talking about murder.
Dave, Kent

Where is the responsibility of the prison system to help a prisoner overcome his or her motivations for crime? If he has anger or drugs problems, my understanding is that prison is probably the last place he should be. Incarceration has never given us the answer to society's problems and the fact that 25% of adult prisoners were in care at some point in their lives and 45% have literacy and numeracy difficulties surely tells us there is something bigger that we need to tackle.
Kate, London

If someone has deliberately killed another, they shouldn't be released, other than under the most exceptional circumstances. The victims and families of those victims have a permanent sentence - and the only sentence that can possibly equate to justice is that the killer should remain the rest of their life in prison.
Tony, Bristol

The responsibility of the Board is to the general public, not the convict. Only they have the inside knowledge to make the right decision. Their decision would be that much easier if they were made personally responsible for the outcome, able to be sued if they get it wrong. If they are not prepared to take that risk then why should we have it thrust upon us?
Dave Robinson, Hull

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