Freeing Jock: An activist behind bars

Liam Donohoe profiles an imprisoned Australian working to reform the Bulgarian jail system.

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Profiles of this sort often start with an extended meditation on the circumstance surrounding the interview, layering descriptions of the environment and subject into a personal narrative. Regrettably, I can’t describe Jock Palfreeman’s environment or even what he looks like. For one, Palfreeman is in another country, Bulgaria. For another, he’s detained in Sofia Central Jail until 2029, sentenced in 2009 to 20 years’ imprisonment over the fatal stabbing of Andrei Monov. I have been following his story since I was first told of it by my Year 8 homeroom teacher back in 2011, and the lack of visceral interaction makes his insights no less pertinent.

As a self-confessed socialist, Palfreeman explains that his involvement in the formation of the Bulgarian Prisoner’s Rehabilitation Association (BPRA) naturally follows from his belief that “all workers should be unionised”. ‘The union’, as inmates call it, began in 2012 in order to end “massive amounts of human rights abuses” by improving Bulgarian prison conditions. Legal support assist prisoners “too uneducated and poor to afford lawyers”, translations assist foreign prisoners who are “more often targets of beatings and torture than other demographics”, and general solidarity assists prisoners through the provision of aid, support networks, and unified resistance.

Given Palfreeman’s experiences with the Bulgarian legal system, it’s little wonder that he is so committed to eliminating its worst dimensions. For starters, his initial conviction seems dubious. Palfreeman maintains that he acted in self-defence after Monov, whose parents were well-connected to Bulgaria’s ruling class, set upon him after he defended two Roma people Monov and his inebriated mates had been attacking.

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That Roma people were subject to abuse does not seem unlikely. During our exchange, Palfreeman called attention to the oppression that Roma people face in Bulgaria. Though they account for 7 per cent of the population, Roma make up over 70 per cent of the prison population, with “de facto segregation” consistent with his claim that “the majority of Bulgarians are overwhelmingly fascist.” But despite inconsistencies and alterations to the testimonies of prosecution witnesses, various arms of the Bulgarian legal system have not seen fit to review CCTV footage and forensic evidence that, according to Palfreeman’s defence, vindicate this claim. In any event, the legal proceeding runs afoul of norms crucial to producing true and just outcomes, an all-too-common occurrence in Bulgaria.

Though many more injustices were committed in the process of his conviction, the experience of prison itself has only amplified their repugnance. General conditions in these prisons are substandard, with inadequate access to basic material necessities, limited protection from violent inmates, minimal privacy, insufficient hygiene, and limited regard for inmate health. But more worryingly, Palfreeman has been subject to beatings at the hands of guards. Prisoners are, he notes, often tortured “for information or even just for fun.”

Organising a union is hard enough in a developed country while enjoying democratic freedoms. Palfreeman notes that because the BPRA is a registered NGO, legal obligations make their activities a “logistical nightmare”, with each active member of the union acting as a “jailhouse lawyer” to other members who are unofficially considered part of the group. Despite the formality demanded by these registrations “so far the organisation’s processes are really grassroots and practical.” By avoiding empowering any particular member with authority and delegating work on the basis of ability, the group seems concerned to avoid the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’.

This is not entirely surprising—even before his imprisonment, Palfreeman was a committed anti-fascist, and he maintains connections with left-radicals in Australia. When my Year 8 teacher—a contemporary of Palfreeman’s in high school—first introduced his case to us, one of the first things mentioned was Palfreeman’s success in convincing their headmaster to let students march in uniform during 2003’s anti-war protests in Sydney’s CBD.

With this political background, it’s little wonder that Palfreeman has learnt valuable lessons in political organising from his time in prison. Specifically, he says it has taught him “that a small group of dedicated people can get a lot done”. Given that progressives are almost always aiming to build mass movements, and regularly stumbling in the process, this is a refreshing take. While building mass support is critical, a consistent focus on that end can inspire lassitude and ultimately pessimism when groups are unaware of their power to affect change as things currently stand.
Palfreeman does not expect mass support from the Bulgarian public anytime soon, and for that reason the BPRA directs little energy towards winning them over. This seems reasonable given both the preponderance of fascistic thought and the existence of an enthusiastic minority “that even want the death penalty returned because feeding prisoners is too expensive.” Moreover, as the people in charge of making reforms are “the most corrupt in the system”, attempting change from within seems difficult.

As such, a large part of their platform appears to be targeting “sympathetic ears” outside of Bulgaria. This explains why most of the BPRA’s Facebook page is in English, and why their “biggest goal is the never-ending task of reconciling Bulgarian prison conditions with the European Recommend Prison rules”. Palfreeman points out that in Bulgaria there is still massive support for the European Union. Given what we already know about the country’s legal system it is little wonder that Bulgarians are more inclined to trust the body orchestrating the “only real push for reform” ahead of their own state and authorities.

In the interim, though, the BPRA hopes to expand to other prisons. The biggest barrier to that is a lack of lawyers to support those inmates. In order to offer protection in spite of this, the organisation also hopes to create a database of legal documents relation to Bulgarian prisons. Their hope is that it aids lawyers and families in their fight for justice, making accessible laws and information surrounding rights that are often intentionally concealed from prisoners.
Palfreeman’s commitment to the welfare of prisoners is nothing short of inspiring, and these injustices are not nearly as far removed from Australia and the western world as we might like to think. Oppressed racial groups are in many instances as over-incarcerated as Roma people, and often as segregated. Indigenous people continue to die in police care, and only the occasional footage of police and prison guard brutality finds its way to mainstream audiences. Conditions are often suboptimal, and prisoners are neither compensated fairly for their labour nor encouraged to unionise in order to remedy that. But despite the obvious benefits that could accrue to prisoners through the establishment of more prison unions, Palfreeman’s insights are useful for all political organising.

Jock Palfreeman’s imprisonment is one of the many around the world that stem from flaws in criminal justice systems. Each night and in every country many people put their head on the pillow facing the prospect of another day without freedom, deprived of material necessities and exposed to violence that robs them of their bodily autonomy. A large portion of these people don’t deserve to be there, violating laws only out of necessity. Many more, disproportionately members of oppressed groups, only violate laws because of structures that fail them. But some, like Jock Palfreeman, just should not be there to begin with. In light of this, it is deeply troubling that prisoners remain one of the most stigmatised and disadvantaged groups in our society. By showing more solidarity with prisoners and the oppressed, we can transcend that stigma in our own lives and improve conditions in the process.

The BPRA could always do with more support, so please consider supporting their social media or contacting them to see if they need assistance with other matters. Their Facebook page is called the ‘Bulgarian Prisoners’ Association’. In Australia ‘Justice Action’ performs a similar advocacy role, and they are always looking for extra volunteers.

This article was updated on the 19th of April to remove a factual inaccuracy. Prosecutors in Bulgaria did not use incidents in Australia to aid their prosecution, nor was the incident political. The author (Liam Donohoe) apologises for any incorrect implications.