Friday, 24 October 2014

The Harry Roberts Saga Continues

This week we’ve been treated to a real ‘blast from the past’ in the form of the impending release on parole licence of Harry Roberts, a lifer who has served 48 years in prison for the murder of two police officers in 1966. As with the release of any particularly notorious con, there has been a media feeding frenzy and – as you might expect – the Daily Mail has really milked the case for all it’s worth.

Harry Roberts
Mr Roberts is an ex-Borstal boy and former British soldier who, by his own admission during rare media interviews, opted for a life of crime when he returned to civvy street following his military service in Malaya during the period of the insurgency against the colonial power led by the Malayan Communist Party. His chosen ‘profession’ was as an armed robber, although to be honest not a very successful one.

In August 1966, three police officers, Sgt Christopher Head, DC David Wombwell and PC Geoffrey Fox, went to investigate what they thought, rightly, was a suspicious van in London’s Shepherd’s Bush in which there were three men, including Mr Roberts. He shot and killed two of them, another robber shot and murdered the third officer. Following this, Mr Roberts went of the run for three months, living rough in a forest in Hertfordshire, until his capture following a massive man-hunt. 

I am too young to remember the initial crime, but I do recall Mr Robert’s name from my own childhood. Like the Moors Murderers and a few other high profile cases, his is one that has lingered in the public consciousness.

Convicted at the Old Bailey and sentenced to life with a minimum tariff of 30 years, Mr Roberts narrowly escaped being hanged, since capital punishment for murder had been abolished the previous year. However, the trial judge did observe that: “I think it likely that no Home Secretary, regarding the enormity of your crime, will ever think fit to show mercy by releasing you on licence.”

And Mr Roberts has been banged-up ever since, a kind of relic of the 1960s still wandering prison wings nearly half a century on. However, because he was not given a ‘whole life’ tariff, his eligibility for release on a parole licence has been quietly ticking away like an ancient unexploded bomb waiting to go off underneath some unsuspecting Secretary of State. Now it finally has.

During the police hunt for Roberts
The angry response of the Police Federation over the release of Mr Roberts is entirely predictable. However, by publicly attacking the Parole Board, the organisation is in danger of politicising the case, while undermining public confidence in the Board, which is an important and integral part of the criminal justice system. This in turn raises questions about the rule of law that police officers are supposed to be committed to uphold. All too often, the Federation does seem to give the impression that its members are above the law, or indeed hold certain aspects of the our legal system in contempt, a perception that I believe is contributing to the erosion of public confidence in policing.

At a time when public trust in the police is at an all-time low in the UK, it might be better for the Federation to focus on putting its own house in order. Its public reputation remains shockingly poor, particularly amid the continuing fallout from the ‘Plebgate’ affair, as well as questions over its own financial business, including ‘secret’ bank accounts and its ability to manage its regional branches in a professional manner.

Earlier this year, an independent review panel chaired by a former Home Office Permanent Secretary, Sir David Normington, concluded that the Police Federation required “fundamental reform”, having lost the confidence of its own members, as well as the general public. One of the most telling criticisms was that the Federation had embarked on various political campaigns, targeting its critics and perceived political opponents. All very nasty for a body that is supposed to be representing the forces of law and order. 

Media coverage in 1966
While it is easy to understand the animosity of police officers towards prisoners such as Mr Roberts, the ongoing public vilification of the Parole Board in the media following its recommendation concerning Mr Robert’s release on licence, both by the Federation’s officials, as well as by senior police officers, really does the Federation no favours at all. Respecting the rule of law in a democracy also means not openly attacking or undermining bodies such as the Parole Board for purely partisan or ‘tribal’ motives. 

Unlike some cons or ex-cons who regard Harry Roberts as some kind of ‘hero’ because he murdered police officers during his criminal activities, I don’t. His case is an example of the bogus mystique of ‘professional’ criminals – such as armed robbers – that is encouraged to some extent by the media and especially in ‘gangster’ films and novels.

This in turn boosts their egos and leads them to regard themselves as some sort of prison ‘aristocracy’, when often they are little more than ignorant thugs and violent bullies who treat fellow prisoners – and often the staff – like dirt. I’ve met people in prison with this mindset throughout my sentence and dislike them intensely.

In the eye of the media storm
That said, as I’ve noted above Mr Roberts was not given a ‘whole life’ tariff (although he almost certainly would have received that sentence had his offences been committed in the 1970s onwards). As part of its review of his case, the Parole Board will have considered the reports of Probation, prison staff and other people who’ve worked with Mr Roberts directly, so his risk is now considered manageable in the community. 

At the age of 78, I doubt that he will return to a life of crime and, in any case, he will be on a life licence and under intensive Probation supervision which means that he will be liable to immediate recall to prison for the rest of his life on the slightest suspicion of any non-compliance with the conditions of his licence or in the event he is suspected of committing a further criminal offence, or even doing anything that might increase his level of risk to the public. 

I expect he’ll end up living in a very bare and basic room in approved premises – some local hostel for ex-cons – under tight curfew and with hourly reporting conditions to begin with, while living on the basic old age pension. For some former prisoners, particularly those who have experienced a couple of years in a relaxed Cat-D (open) prison, life on parole licence supervision in the community can be much more stressful and controlled than being back in the nick. I know several ex-cons on licence who have told me they would rather be in an open prison than living in approved premises.

Under supervision
It can also be a desperately lonely and empty experience, particularly for an older person who may no longer have close family ties or friends from outside the world of prison. He is also unlikely to be permitted to associate with any other ex-cons outside the confines of the hostel, so his social circle may be pretty restricted. 

Giving his high media profile over the past 48 years, Mr Roberts is likely to be the focus of much negative attention when he is back in the community, so his daily life is hardly going to be free and easy. His every movement and comment will be monitored and analysed, probably for the rest of his natural life. In some respects being released on life licence, with the risk of immediate recall by the Ministry of Justice hanging over him forever, could well prove to be a new chapter in his continuing punishment.


  1. Maybe his release is due to a terminal illness

    1. Thanks for your comment. It is possible, but I think that would have been dealt with as more of a compassionate release This looks to me like a standard lifer parole decision based on an oral hearing and reports received by the Parole Board, as well as representations from Mr Roberts via his solicitors.

      Lifers do get parole regularly and this would all be pretty routine were it not for his notoriety and the consequent media interest.

  2. At least 'on the out' hopefully he'll be less of a drain on the public purse.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It's difficult to say at this stage. If the media hounds Mr Roberts then I suspect he'll end up being relocated and perhaps even be given a new identity. Hostels really aren't keen on high profile ex-cons on licence owing to all the potential disruption, including fellow residents selling gossip and stories to the tabloids, reporters camped out on the doorstep etc.

      If there are any credible threats to his personal safety then measures may have to be taken. All of this costs money and takes resources, as will intensive supervision from the Probation Service and MAPPA arrangements, so it may not turn out to be all that much cheaper, at least to start with until the media loses interest and moves on.

  3. The crimes this man has committed cannot be simply ignored, he committed horrible acts which cannot be excused.

    The judge gave him a 30 year minimum sentence, he served 48 years. I suggest he's served his time. Not a death sentence, not a whole live sentence.

    It is a very strange response from the various police associations that this man should remain in prison until he dies. We do have a very well established parole system that can, and does, recommend release where it's suitable. All too often we hear of cases referred by the police to courts for sentencing. Often the police, quite rightly, agree with the decision of the courts, in this case they don't. The police forward criminals to the courts to be dealt with, that's where their duties end. It is shameful that such authorities fail to accept the decisions of courts and parole boards.

    I don't feel any sympathy whatsoever towards Mr Roberts for the crimes he has committed. However, he's served 18 years over his minimum time and is being releases as a 78 year old man.

    No doubt the press will hound him, probation will watch his ever move and the police will be keeping a very close eye on him. Living on a state pension with little or no family or friends after 48 years of incarceration will be very tough on the outside. As you, Alex, state maybe his release is the final cruel punishment at the end of his sentence. I can only think of the character Brooks in the film the Shawshank Redemption who took his own life after release from 50 years inside = unable to cope with the outside world.

    1. Thank your for your interesting comments on this controversial case. It does raise a number of critical issues. Ironically, even back in the days when the UK had capital punishment on the statute books, many convicts were reprieved. In those cases they were not handed 'whole-life' tariffs as such and many whose death sentences had been commuted were eventually released after some years spent in prison.

      I think that there is always a danger when specific crimes, which cause - quite rightly - public revulsion, become politicised. This often leads to knee-jerk legislation and the passing of what can amount to bad law. I would argue that the Dangerous Dogs Act is a prime example of how not to draw up proper legislation that is workable and enforceable.

      The Parole Board was established by Parliament in 1968 under the Criminal Justice Act (1967) and it has clearly defined functions. It operates under the Parole Board Rules and is an integral part of the criminal justice system in this country. Its panels reach decisions based on the evidence before them (expert reports, reports from prison staff and Probation), as well as on oral evidence called during hearings.

      In my opinion, it is entirely inappropriate for other segments of the criminal justice system to make public criticism of the way in which the courts or the Parole Board operate. To do so risks undermining public confidence in the whole criminal justice system.

      I think that the reaction of the leaders of police institutions (and the Police Federation is in all but name a trades union) demonstrates the dangers of politicisation of such emotive issues. Could you imagine serving members our armed forces behaving in such a way? When ex-servicemen speak out its usually after they have retired... it's all about not challenging the chain of command, at least in public, or bringing the service into disrepute.

      This is all the more ironic, given that the Police Federation itself is an organisation that has many identified deficiencies which it is currently supposed to be addressing. Frankly, based on the findings of the Normington Review, the Federation could be regarded as being 'unfit for purpose' and both its leadership and most rank and file members appear to have acknowledged the urgent need for radical reform. Getting publicly embroiled in this sort of mud-slinging at specific decisions of the Parole Board really doesn't reflect well on the Federation.

  4. I guess this man will not cope with modern life!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I suppose that it will largely depend on the amount of Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) that he has had prior to release. If he has been out in town or even staying in a hostel for some nights on ROTL, then he will probably have handled our current money, used a mobile phone, explored the internet and been shopping. If so, then the outside world probably won't come as such a great shock, even after 48 years in prison. That's one of the important roles that Cat-D (open) prisons can play in preparing lifers and long-termers for eventual release on licence.

    2. Oh yes, there was a different currency in the UK pre 1971!

    3. Indeed there was! And of course we've even had a change in the decimal coinage since 1971 with new coins coming in and the old, larger ones phased out.

      A couple of the main things that people who have served very long sentences can find astonishing are the massive rise in prices (on paper a mobile phone can now cost almost as much as a small house or a new car did 50 years ago) and the incredible increase in the amount and speed of traffic on our roads.

      When I was an Insider (peer mentor) I accompanied a lifer on his first town visit when he was unescorted by a member of the prison staff, just to offer some moral support. It was his first independent day out of the nick for 30+ years, although he'd had a few escorted trips. We went to an internet cafe and I helped him get online and even set up his first internet account. He actually coped very well with all the novelties of modern life, including seeing me use a cash machine outside a bank and trying out his first mobile phone, but it was still the vast increase in traffic around the town that surprised and even scared him a little.

  5. Hi Alex,

    thanks for another interesting post. My next question in my ongoing quest to pick your brains on life inside:

    Today I'll like to ask you about Prison Corruption?

    1) In the Wandsworth prison link you sent me, the former prisoner references the fact that some people were "rich" inside prison and seemed to hint that they were being brought items in by bent screws. Did you ever notice anything like this and did you think it was prevalent in the prisons you were in?

    2) How easy was it to get contraband items inside prison? I'm not just talking about highly illegal items like drugs and weapons. But day-to-day items that perhaps weren't on the canteen or catalogue sheets. E.g. pornographic magazines/DVDs, art supplies etc. ?

    3) Did you ever get the feeling that some prisoners had "earned" special privileges because they had corrupted or bribed any guards?

    4) What were the punishments for people who were caught in possession of contraband items like mobiles, drugs, alcohol?

    Thank you


    1. Hi Tommy, thanks for your questions. I'm glad you've found the post interesting.

      Bent screws and other prison staff are an acknowledged problem across the prison system. They may only represent a small percentage of the whole, but they do make prisons less safe places because of the devastating impact of smuggled drugs, as well as mobile phones that are used to facilitate the trade inside. Weapons tend to be improvised in cells using prison razor blades or sharpened pieces of metal, rather than smuggled in.

      I wouldn't say that corruption was prevalent in the prisons I was at, but it must have been going on. I saw glass bottles of spirits on wings in closed nicks and those could only have come in via staff. They couldn't have been thrown over the walls, nor 'plugged' (to use the polite term for rectal insertion). Someone who came into the prison through official channels physically brought these bottles in through the gatehouse and handed them over to cons.

      Obviously the main contraband in closed prisons is drug-related, including mobile phones and SIMs. Soft pornography ('girlie mags' or 'lads' mags') aren't actually banned as long as they aren't displayed publicly in cells. In fact some titles can be ordered via the local newsagent that the prison has its papers and magazine delivery contract with!

      I have seen 18-rated DVDs inside prisons of all categories, even though these are now banned across the prison estate. This is actually another ridiculous Chris Grayling policy, since Film 4 or other available freeview TV channels regularly shows 18 certificate films in the late evening, so why ban exactly the same film on a DVD. Just idiocy!

      Both from my own experience, as well as anecdotes from other cons, Cat-Ds are full of pretty much every type of contraband, ranging from explicit porn DVDs to drugs (hard, soft and 'legal') and alcohol. Prisoners who have Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) go into the local town or else go home and bring in a range of toiletries and other items that aren't available on the canteen sheet. Some do get caught and 'nicked' by Reception screws, but an awful lot gets through the gate and is then used or sold on.

      I had six home leaves from a Cat-D and my washbag was never, ever checked when I reported back. I had a small amount of aftershave (banned in all jails), packets of Gillette Fusion razor blades (not available on the canteen sheet), shower gel, shaving serum... loads of small items like that. No-one ever said a word to me about it.

    2. (Part two)...

      Getting caught with a mobile phone or a SIM card is now a much bigger issue than it used to be. This can now result in external police charges and a Crown Court trial. However, often the sentence is made concurrent with the existing one being served, so it may not really add to the time, although sometimes it does.

      Possession of so-called 'legal' highs is problematic, mainly because it can only be dealt with internally by a charge of 'unauthorised possession' of an item, since the substance itself is not illegal to possess or use. In fact, a woman who smuggled a 'legal high' into a prison recently had her conviction quashed by the court on the grounds that she hadn't actually committed a criminal offence known in law.

      Following an internal adjudication for possession of unauthorised items (or failing a drugs test) a governor can impose 'losses' (of privileges, canteen access, gym and prison wages) for a set time, or it can end up with time down the Block (segregation unit). Most proven adjudications will also lead to a demotion in the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme, often from Enhanced to Standard, or even down onto Basic level straight away if the offence is serious.

      Being caught with illegal drugs, however, is another story because it can end up back in court, especially if there is a suspicion of any dealing to other cons. Prison security always puts pressure on suspected dealers to give up both their suppliers and their customers.

      I wouldn't say that I've been aware of prisoners bribing staff. If such activities are taking place - which they may well be - then they are done very discreetly, with any cash payments for drugs etc made well away from the jail itself. Any outward sign of special privileges for specific cons would ring alarm bells, so this wouldn't happen in my experience. Any corruption inside a nick is usually kept very low key and under the radar of the security screws.