The prisoner

15 years ago he was stabbed twice with a broken glass after being racially abused. He killed his attacker with a penknife and was subsequently imprisoned for murder. The parole board has now recommended he be released, but he is still in prison - and no one will explain why. Simon Hattenstone on the story of Satpal Ram

Simon Hattenstone, The Guardian, Wednesday September 19 2001 

It all started, and finished, in a Birmingham curry house 15 years ago. At one table was Satpal Ram, a 20-year-old Asian warehouse worker. At another was Clarke Pearce, a white man out with five friends. The Sky Blue Restaurant was playing Indian music. Ram liked it and asked the waiters if they could turn it up. Pearce didn't like it. "We don't want any more of this fucking wog music," he told the waiters. There was an argument. Pearce smashed a glass on the table and stabbed Ram with it twice - in the face and in the wrist. His five friends began throwing plates and glasses. Ram was trapped in a corner. When Pearce came for him again Ram took out a knife and stabbed him.

Both men were taken to hospital. Ram received treatment. Pearce, drunk and in shock, resisted treatment and died of blood loss. When Ram heard that Pearce had died, he went into hiding. He knew the implications of killing a white man. A few days later, he emerged with a lawyer and gave himself up. Ram says that when he heard Pearce had died it seemed as if his own life had just ended - and in a way it had. The all-white jury found him guilty of murder and he was sentenced to life. The trial judge recommended 12 years, reduced by the then lord chief justice, Lord Lane, to 10, and increased by the home secretary to 11.

September 2000: Fifteen years on, Ram is still in prison. He has been transferred from jail to jail 65 times, and is regarded as a troublemaker. He has refused to accept that he was guilty of murder, refused to do prison work, and often challenged the authorities. He was turned down for parole in 1997. He expects to hear from the parole board next week, but his friends and family believe he will be turned down again.

Why has he been refused parole? The prison service says it cannot comment on a specific case, but offers a general statement: "Release on or after tariff expiry is dependent on whether the prisoner's risk has reduced to a level compatible with public safety." According to the prison service, Ram, with a couple of minor convictions to his name before the incident (including one for assaulting a police officer in 1985), and having committed no crime while in prison, is still a risk to the public.

I make a request to visit Ram. He is currently in Full Sutton, a high-security category-B jail. It took almost 10 years for him to get an appeal against his conviction, which he lost. Now he's waiting to hear if he will be allowed to appeal again. Any prisoner appealing his conviction is entitled to one visit from the media; the prison service replies that Ram would prefer to be visited by Panorama. I write to Ram. He says he would love me to visit and suggests I go to see him as a friend. He sends me a visiting order.

Ram has a lot of friends, many of them famous. He has become an unlikely cause for pop stars: Asian Dub Foundation, Primal Scream and Apache Indian are all vocal supporters. When I ask Deeder Zaman, formerly lead rapper with Asian Dub Foundation, why they support Ram, he says it's simple - because he shouldn't be in prison. Why has he been given such a hard time there? "Innocent prisoners have a harder time than guilty ones. It is harder for them to deal with it mentally."

Zaman talks about how they've tried to break Ram down - the constant moves, the beatings, the five-and-a-half years in solitary confinement. "Every day he has to defend himself against prison officers. They deliberately target him and are hellbent on jeopardising his release."

What has Ram done to offend them? Zaman say he has made legitimate complaints about his treatment, and they don't like that. Another possible factor is that Pearce's brother-in-law was an officer at Winson Green prison at the time of the killing.

Ram's supporters say his trial was a farce. He was given only a 40-minute consultation with his barrister shortly before going into the dock. He was advised to change his plea from self-defence to provocation, and not to speak in his own defence. There were no interpreters provided for the Bengali-speaking waiters who gave evidence. The judge, Mr Justice Ognall, tried to assist with interpretation problems but he could speak no Bengali. Important defence witnesses were not called, while the group that attacked Ram gave evidence for the prosecution. The jury were never asked to consider the racist nature of the attack.

October 2000: Ram rings to say he is still waiting for the decision from the criminal case review commission (CCRC). Is the delay getting to him? "I've been weathering the storm for 15 long years now. I've reached a stage where I take it a day at a time. I've come through the pain barrier." He says no matter what they do to him now, they can't break his spirit. He's become immune to it all. He sounds so positive on the phone and he says that communication with the outside world is what keeps him going. More specifically, phonecards keep him going.

January 2001: Ram has been transferred to Wellingborough, a category-C prison. When we finally meet face to face, he is waiting for me at his table. Like the other inmates he wears a blue vest that could pass as a football training top. He looks different from his pictures - softer, slighter. Younger, in a way, without his moustache. His hair is gelled and combed pedantically to the side.

We talk about the killing. Ram says the more time that passes the clearer he can replay it in his head. He was 20 years old, had no experience of life. He demonstrates how he was attacked and stabbed with the broken glass and how, when Pearce came for him again, he drew the penknife he used for opening parcels at the warehouse. He shows me the scars on his chin and on his forearm, where he was stabbed on the night. There are also marks on his wrists from the last time he was ratchet-cuffed in prison. Ram has always said he remembers stabbing Pearce once, and acknowledges that he must have stabbed him a second time. But because there were many more cuts on Pearce's body the lawyers advised Ram he could not argue it was self-defence. The only option available was a defence of provocation. "The other wounds were caused by falling on broken glass that came from his own friends, who were throwing plates and glasses at me," Ram says.

In his recommendation about Ram's life sentence, Ognall concluded: "The verdict was to a degree unexpected. There was independent evidence which suggested that the deceased may well have initiated the incident both verbally and physically, by wounding the defendant with a broken glass." Ram did not hear that Ognall had expressed surprise at the verdict until 10 years later. "If he had such doubts, why didn't he direct the jury?" he asks me. "If he had, surely I wouldn't still be serving life for premeditated murder."

Ram recites Lord Lane's conclusion in reducing the tariff. "There were mitigating circumstances here. I suggest a somewhat lower than normal tariff. I suggest 10 years." In 1996, after finding out about Ognall's remarks, Ram wrote to the retired Lord Lane and said he considered the home secretary's intervention was political interference. Lane wrote back, saying he agreed.

Ram says that right from the early days the officers abused him. While on trial he was held at Winson Green in Birmingham - the prison Pearce's brother-in-law worked at. "A group of screws would come into my cell and call me a Paki and subject me to all forms of racial abuse. At times they beat the crap out of me." He claims they encouraged him to kill himself. "They'd come to my door and say, 'Go on, Ram, why don't you hang yourself.' Prison is meant to be about rehabilitation, but in reality it's about subjugation, humiliation and degradation."

Over the years, Ram has read up on the law and human rights. Fellow prisoners now visit him for advice. He recently challenged the prison authorities on their monitoring of telephone calls. "Officers had to make a log of all the phone calls, and when we were talking in, say, Punjabi, the officers recorded their own comments, signing and dating each entry. The log was full of stuff like: 'They were talking Paki crap. Well dodgy.' If they can express such blatant prejudices in these official documents, can you imagine what they are saying in private? The reality is that we can't get a fair hearing within this environment."

His complaint led to the officers concerned being spoken to and sent on a retraining course. As a result, he says, he was twice assaulted by prison officers at Full Sutton and put back in segregation for three months.

Ram's father died two years after he was imprisoned, but his two brothers and three sisters still visit. He no longer see his mother. "She's in her 70s now, and it's difficult for her to travel due to ill health. In the early days she visited all the time, but she'd get upset and that would get me down, so now we just speak on the phone."

Why does he think he's still in prison? "Because I've never admitted my guilt. While I've always accepted that a man died as a result of my actions, at the same time I feel that the circumstances which led up to this incident have never been taken into account properly. I was stabbed twice with a broken glass after being subjected to a torrent of racial abuse. I was in fear of my own safety and acted in self-defence. They outnumbered me and he was physically bigger than me. There was no time to reflect because it all happened so quickly. I've now been punished in more ways than one. That's the basis of my submission to the parole board."

I tell him he's looking good on his 34 years. "Prison keeps you young," he says. "No late nights." What keeps him going? He quotes me a verse by IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands:

It lights the dark of the prison cell

It thunders forth its might.

It is the undauntable thought my friend

That thought that says I'm right

February: We speak on the phone. He sounds rushed, not his usual bouncy self. He seems to be conducting a conversation with me and a prison officer at the same time. Suddenly he explodes at her. He has turned the phone away from his mouth, but I can hear. "Have some manners! You ought not to be doing that to me lady. It's ignorant. I wouldn't interrupt you while you were trying to hold a telephone conversation. Have some manners. This is supposed to be a category-C prison." He warns me they're going to cut him off. Click.

I don't hear from him for a couple of weeks. His campaign group says he has been beaten up by officers and put in solitary, and is to be transferred back to a category-B prison. I phone Wellingborough to find out what is happening: "We have no intention of giving you information on a Saturday night," I am told. Why not? "Because... we're just not. I can assure you he has not been beaten up, though."

He has made a series of complaints about being beaten up in various prisons. None of the criminal investigations has found in his favour, ruling that officers reacted with minimum required force after being assaulted by Ram. The photograph, showing him with a bruised eye, was smuggled out of a prison in Nottingham following an alleged beating in 1997 after he barricaded himself inside his cell. The official investigation found that any injuries sustained were the result of him resisting restraint after threatening officers with violence.

Bobby Gillespie, singer and songwriter with Primal Scream, heard about Ram when his band were supported by Asian Dub Foundation. Gillespie went to visit him in Hull. They had their visiting order, the visit was booked, they had come all the way from London and when they arrived they were told they would not be allowed to see Ram. They were given no reason. "Satpal being Sat pal said: 'These are high profile rock'n'roll motherfuckers and if you don't let them visit they'll get a power generator and a lorry and have a huge gig outside the prison gates.' So they let us in." Gillespie says he can't understand how Ram can remain so upbeat. "He's a really soft, warm, loving man. That's all I can say. His spirit's bigger than any of us."

Gillespie has also heard that Ram is back in solitary, and he's worried. "I'm scared for his life. I really do think the prison officers are trying to murder Satpal." Why? Gillespie says he's been a thorn in their side for too many years.

March: Ram is moved back to a category-B prison, Blakenhurst. It is red-brick, privatised, neatly cut off from the rest off the world by barbed wire. Ram is in favour of privatised prisons - he says the officers treat prisoners better because they know it makes for an easier life.

In January he had said he couldn't see himself lasting six months at Wellingborough. In the end, he barely made it through a couple of weeks. What went wrong? He tells me it's a long and crazy story. "There was a young man, a lifer, John Walsh, who'd had some bad news. They knocked back his parole and he'd barricaded himself in. They ordered us off the landing. We knew what they wanted to do to John."

Ram says the Mufti squad were in waiting. "Mufti - Minimum Use of Force Tactical Intervention. In reality, prison officers dressed in full riot gear." Ram and one other prisoner refused to go. "John was upstairs, and I shouted out through the window, 'You may as well come out, you're just making things worse for yourself,' and he came out." He says the others were returned to their cells, but the officers launched an unprovoked attack on him. "I heard one of them say, 'Get Ram!' They then laid into me. I was smashed to the floor with riot shields and repeatedly trod on. I was then ratchet-cuffed behind my back and dragged to the strip cell." He shows me new marks on his wrists. He claims the officers kicked and thumped him before cutting off his clothes with a pair of scissors, leaving him naked in the strip cell for two days without food or water. The temperatures were sub-zero.

"After two days I got my pot and threw the contents at the guards." What was in it? He smiles like a naughty schoolboy. "Piss!" After that, he was moved to Blakenhurst.

Blakenhurst suits him fine, he says. It's closer to home. And there's also the protest to look forward to. His friends are going to jam the home office with phone calls and faxes protesting at his sentence. "We're going to blitz them because they're taking the piss. If they want to piss me off, I'm going to piss them off, yeah, yeah, yeah," he choruses.

May: Ram rings me. He's had flu, and another period in solitary after another beating. He was accused of having too many phonecards. He doesn't deny it, but questions whether it merited the punishment. He claims that every time his parole comes up he gets a beating.

But that's by the by, he says excitedly. He's had some news. "The parole board have recommended my release. They say I'm absolutely no risk to anyone." He quotes the report: "The panel did not consider that Mr Ram's attitudes and behaviour in custody could be taken as indicating a serious risk of violent offending in the future... He has not been involved in fights or violent confrontation with fellow inmates, notwithstanding the racist undercurrents which he perceives around him and bearing in mind the racist taunts were a feature of the index offence.'"

The recommendation of immediate release from maximum security is virtually unprecedented. That's fantastic, I say. "Well, that's the good news. The bad news is that the Home Office has turned down the parole board's recommendation." The Home Office has said he remains a risk to public safety, and must go through the traditional process of decategorisation.

He seems to be caught between elation and despair, and the despair is winning. "It's that Jumping Jack Straw I'm really pissed off with. It's outrageous. The most disgusting thing is the parole board made this recommendation six months ago and the prison service has kept it secret from me." He was due to hear about his right to a second appeal against his conviction months ago, and still nothing. For Ram, this is even more important than his parole - if he doesn't have his murder conviction overturned, he will spend the rest of his life on licence, meaning that if he were ever arrested he could be returned to prison to serve out his life sentence.

The prison service refuses to comment about the parole board's recommendation, beyond stating that the home secretary is entitled to spend as long as he wishes reviewing the parole board's recommendation. The parole board says that whether Ram is released or not is beyond its jurisdiction. Is it normal for the home secretary to overrule the parole board? "No," says the spokesperson. "We are generally in close agreement. But the home secretary must believe that it will reduce confidence in the criminal justice system."

June: Ram is back in a category-C prison: Littlehey in Huntingdon. I've never seen him like this. He looks devastated, broken. He has just heard that his mother has leukaemia. "If my Ma dies, both my parents will have died while I'm in here," he says.

I ask Ram's solicitor, Gareth Peirce, why she thinks he is still in prison. "There is no good reason. The bad reason is that he's failed to address his offending behaviour - ie, he won't admit his guilt and they say his whole history in prison has been one of confrontation. But the parole board refuted that. A significant number of wrongfully convicted individuals have been marked out by the prison service in the same way as Satpal Ram, as troublemakers in permanent confrontation with the prison system." She cites a few of the people she has worked with: Paul Hill and Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four, Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six, and Sarah Thornton.

July: Ram tells me how well he has been treated at Littlehey. He gets on with the officers, and has been allowed home without handcuffs to visit his mother. He tells me there was something terrible and joyous in their reunion. The house was packed with friends and relatives he hadn't seen all these years. His visits have, somehow, given his mother strength. He's recovered some of his optimism. He has heard that he'll be moved to an open prison, and if he behaves he could be out in six months.

September: He is moved to an open prison - and then back again, accused of assaulting an officer. Ram says he'd received news that his mother had been sent back to hospital to die. He spent hours trying to talk to the hospital. When he ran out of phonecards he walked out of his block to get some from another block. He knows he wasn't supposed to do it, but he was desperate. On his return, he says, he was rugby tackled by officers and told he had tried to escape. He was taken to a segregation unit, and he says, racially abused by officers.

Ram is moved back to Winson Green, and then to Blakenhurst. The prospect of parole has receded. At the same time, Ram hears that the CCRC has provisionally refused him right to appeal - the ultimate double whammy.

The governor of Blakenhurst has told him that if he wants to make a final visit to his mother he will have to do so in handcuffs. He says he couldn't do it to her. "I want to spend my last few hours with her in privacy. Is that too much to ask?"

The next day Peirce tells me Ram's mother has died. He never got to make his final visit. Over the years, Peirce has seen it all, but even she finds this difficult to absorb. "You wouldn't treat a dog like this, even if you hated dogs."

The new home secretary, David Blunkett is - like the previous home secretary - unable, or unwilling, to comment on the case of Satpal Ram.

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