A bearded Jock Palfreeman emerges blinking into the sunlight in the yard of Sofia Central Prison shortly after 10am. He's now four years and four months into his 20-year sentence for the murder of Andrei Monov and wounding of Antoan Zahariev after a late night street brawl shortly before Christmas 2007.
Palfreeman claims he intervened to help an unidentified Roma who was being attacked by a gang of what appeared to be drunken Bulgarian Levski fans. The prosecution claims that Palfreeman was simply motivated by "hooliganism". The implication is that he is a pure psychopath. To which this journalist might be tempted to reply – after numerous encounters with the prisoner concerned – that he would seem to be an extremely good-natured and intelligent one if that is the case.
Palfreeman's case seems to polarise observers by nationality. It is seen as a monumental miscarriage of justice by many expatriate observers, full of false conclusions, blatant inconsistencies and unreliable testimony. To Bulgarian media, on the other hand, it is an open and shut case, scarcely deserving a second thought.
Typically, the prison authorities had not even bothered to forewarn Palfreeman of our interview date. So he was unaware of it and had to be woken by guards. To Palfreeman it's just another slight in a long list of complaints and grievances.
From the outset, however, he makes clear he has moved on from discussion of the case itself and wants to talk about conditions in jail. Those who want to refresh themselves about the case can do so here.
When we meet he is in the process of registering Bulgaria's first ever prisoners' union. He says he now has 50 members. Getting his fellow prisoners into an organised group – overcoming their apathy and trying to instill some collectivised spirit into them – is the kind of activity that has kept Palfreeman motivated over recent months. Distant goals, bold plans, but most of all little concrete achievements, keep him going and help ward off the sheer monotony of prison life. Bear in mind that he spends 22 and a half hours a day in his cell.
Those expecting a "beaten down" Palfreeman – one devoid of spirit or fight – are in for a surprise. He still has a good sense of humour – throwing his head back with laughter regularly as he rails against what he perceives as the sheer incompetence and stupidity of the Bulgarian penal system. And he still appears robust. He is feisty and angry about prison life but most of his conversation is about the plight of his fellow prisoners who, he says, are often worse off than him. Self-obsession has never been one of Palfreeman's trademarks.
He looks in good colour having given up smoking since our previous meeting almost exactly one year earlier which you can read here.
He points out, however, that any credit for his good health lies not with the prison but rather his family. "I'm able to buy proper food from the canteen with my parents' money. Otherwise, we've been eating lentils for the past week. Fortunately, my family's got money to buy food for me. That's why I don't look too bad. So I don't want you to mistake me looking good for the prison caring for me. There's a difference between looking after myself and the prison's responsibility which they have neglected for 20 years. It's ridiculous in here."
His main grievance about the prison is that any notion of rehabilitation – or any record of good or bad behaviour in anticipation of possible parole – is apparently anathema to the authorities. "There's not one protocol or system of conditions or anything at all for how a person should be released. So, on one hand, they're releasing real criminals because they have 'friends' and, on the other hand, denying release to people who are not criminals or repeat offenders because they do not have 'friends'. It's completely up to the whim of the prison administration – the director, the head of guards and the head of social workers."
The system, it seems is completely arbitrary. "If they like you, they release you and they have the power to do so just like that. If they don't like you, then you stay in for years. In England or Australia, if you were a violent offender, you'd be doing anger management classes, self-control courses and things like that. Then if you passed the course, you'd get a psychologist's or counsellor's certificate and then proceed to the next level. Here there's nothing like that. Just forget it. It's really screwed up."
He says the prison system in Bulgaria is characterised by its complete and utter backwardness. "There is no system of checks or controls – nothing. I've been here for four years and four months and I've been sitting on my bed for that time, 22 and a half hours a day, with between six and eight other people in a room (with bathroom, eating table and a place to prepare food) measuring two by six metres."
Palfreeman spends most of his time writing letters to other prisoners around the world. Comparisons with the system in other countries do not flatter Bulgaria. "In other Western countries if you're following a certain path of behaviour and passing tests you get more privileges. Here there is no privilege system, only a punishment system, and absolutely no rehabilitation. So when it comes to parole there's no document to say you are rehabilitated. Nothing that you did or didn't do is ever acknowledged."
Palfreeman has to deal with the same faces day after day in a very confined space. The lack of privacy is very difficult. "I've been to isolation three or four times. It's nice to be on your own. Isolation is a nice break, especially after living with seven other people," Palfreeman says with a wry smile.
Do tempers boil over?
"In my cell it's pretty good," Palfreeman tells me. "We haven't had a fight in my cell for years because when you can see tempers flaring up and people getting stressed there are simple ways of calming people down. I tell the person concerned to come and watch TV with me, that sort of thing."
I make a rather inane remark about it being "nice" that he has TV – although all electricity is turned off at 10pm. Palfreeman says it's just as well they have TV since – unlike in the British penal system, for example – prisoners are just left to stew. "You stay in the cell and that's it. The prison does nothing here. You get woken up in the morning and then in the evening. We get given three soups a day. In the morning it's macaroni and sugar. Lunch is again soup but once a week we may get a piece of meat."
Palfreeman says that the prison kitchen operates a scam. "The meat is nearly all bone because the man buying the food for the kitchen has dodgy deals whereby they rip off people. The prison kitchen spends the day opening hundreds and hundreds of 250g cans of canned tomato every day. They cut the pods off and squeeze the oil out. Do you know why they're doing that? They're stealing it." Facilities are threadbare. "We have no saucepans but sometimes we make hot plates and we smuggle elements in from outside."
When Palfreeman and his fellow prisoners are allowed out of his cell, it's just to walk around like zombies. Palfreeman says that even these "outings" in the exercise yard (and here he laughs as indeed he does frequently throughout our interview) betray the dysfunctional and inept nature of the prison authorities. "For one-and-a-half hours a day we walk around in a circle in the yard. It's like in the movies except it's worse because there's no organisation. Some people walk clockwise, some anti-clockwise, some walk up and down. Everyone's bumping into everybody whereas, at least in the movies, you see people walking the same way!"
With all legal avenues in Bulgaria exhausted – after his conviction and the rejection of two subsequent appeals – the option of a transfer to Australia still remains. Yet the Bulgarian prosecutor has refused to answer Australia's request. When I ask why, he says that the question is better addressed to the branch of the head prosecutor's office that deals with foreign entities and has responsibility for handling transfer requests. Palfreeman says it should be a matter of mutual diplomatic respect that a response is given and that "they're just taking the piss now".
He doesn't want to dwell on the case. "Now is the time to discuss prison conditions because when we form the association, we're going to use it as the spearhead for suing the authorities. The only avenue we have as far as fighting for our rights is concerned is to sue them because they don't open dialogue with us. As far as the case is concerned, we're waiting for the appeal to be submitted to Strasbourg. Once the appeal is submitted, it will take between four to six years for an answer. So it's just flogging a dead horse to keep talking about the case. It was relevant but not anymore."
We do mention, however, that Dr Hristo Monov, the psychologist father of the deceased, Andrei Monov, appears regularly on television, usually in his professional capacity. According to Palfreeman, however, Dr Monov always succeeds in inserting a reference to the case during such interviews. "Two months ago he (Dr Monov) was on a TV talk show and he just kept bringing it up. It was a discussion about court experts and what they can and can't do. He was complaining because all the court experts supported my version of events and he was saying that there's not enough control over them."
Palfreeman says he now understands Bulgarian well, so watching Bulgarian TV poses no obstacles. "My grammar is bad but I can communicate verbally. When administrators speak to me, I don't know what they're saying because they speak higher Bulgarian," he says with a smile.
I ask about the severe winter. Even with proper heating it was difficult. For prisoners it must have been hell.
"We stuffed the prison windows with blankets," Palfreeman tells me. "We have a central heating system but no schedule for it. So they put the heating on for an hour a day but because there's no insulation the heat disappears in 10 or 15 minutes or so and then that's it for the day. I'm ill right now and was ill three or four times this past winter. One time I got pneumonia and they just gave me tablets. It's ridiculous – just have a paracetamol."
According to Bulgarian justice-makers, Palfreeman is a violent hooligan who committed a murder for no good reason. Yet, incredibly, in the light of this perception on the part of the authorities, he is housed in the same cell as prisoners whose only crime is that they are illegal immigrants. Even the most unsympathetic observers of Palfreeman's "case" could only conclude that this defies logic. If he is the vicious assailant depicted by the authorities, why is he not being kept apart from petty criminals? If, on the other hand, he is not dangerous, then what accounts for his massive tariff?
"How stupid is this place?" asks Palfreeman. "I've been convicted of killing a guy for no reason. According to them I should be considered a crazy maniac and I'm in a cell with illegal immigrants. Of course, they KNOW there won't be a problem between me and other people because if they thought I was dangerous to people around me, they wouldn't put me here in the first place."
Palfreeman claims that the powers-that-be know full well that he poses no threat to anyone – and indeed never did – so making a mockery of the original verdicts.
After four years inside he says he is now – in an informal sense – "responsible" for his cell and ensuring that "personalities" do not clash. "The only privilege it gives me is over the other prisoners. If a new person is moving to a cell, or if there are problems in the cell, I get called as a mediator and they ask me – why is this happening? What can we do?"
He has no power, however, over prison abuses. A burly prison officer sits at the bench near us, monitoring our discussion, but that does not deter Palfreeman from railing against the brutality of certain guards. The worst incident, Palfreeman says, took place on December 17 2011. "The prison's internal rules say that they can't bring us out of the cell for roll call because in the days of communism bringing people out into a cold corridor and keeping them there for an hour was used as an instrument of torture. But they still do it in Russia. Yet a new guard, transferred to our section, was doing this to psychologically torture us. Every morning he would make us leave the cell to go into the corridor. One day I twigged, why the hell did all the guards leave us in our cells whereas this one guard brings us out? I found a copy of the prison lawbook. I saw the article (number 24) where it stipulates that roll calls have to be made in the cell. It was 6.30am – no sun, dead of Bulgarian winter and the windows were open in the corridor."
Palfreeman says that he and the other prisoners refused to leave the cell. "The guard in question rang the head guard and told them we were being 'unruly' and that we weren't obeying commands. Five minutes later, 30 guards came in, armed with batons. One of them hit me on the shoulders. The former director had banned the guards from carrying batons but the new director reversed this decision. I grabbed the baton of the guard who hit me and he backed off. Then they smashed the cell. I had shelves for my books. They destroyed them and threw food around – not prison food but private food bought with my family's money. Then they opened packets of coffee and threw it around."
The guards, Palfreemans says, are just totally uneducated individuals who MIGHT have finished high school, certainly no further. "They have had no training on how to be guards; they don't know the laws of the prison or indeed any laws. When I cited article 24 to the guard concerned he just said 'it's my prison, I can make the rules.'"
It seems that long-term prisoners making friends with guards – often depicted in the movies – is unlikely to happen in Palfreeman's case.
"It happens but not with me. The day that happens is the day the fire dies!" he tells me. He says he feels he is in a kind of no man's land in the prison. "I now separate Bulgaria from the prison. There is no Bulgaria for me anymore. The prison gave one prisoner the task of giving them identity cards. He put the Bulgarian flag on the cards but the prison director said he could not put the Bulgarian flag on ID cards because we were not citizens. At first I was shocked at his stupidity, at his sheer backwardness, because that was the mentality of prison wardens 100 years ago – that prisoners are not citizens! European legislation now says that we ARE citizens and we do have rights. EU guidelines say that being in prison is the punishment and that prisoners should live as close to the lives they lead outside barring obvious security arrangements – bars on the window and all that."
Palfreeman says that a Bulgarian jail robs prisoners of their dignity as well as their freedom. Prisoners have no soap, no toilet paper, no washing powder, no toothpaste and no hygienic products whatsoever – although they can shower any time they want. The prison does not issue footwear. Palfreeman tells me that one prisoner regularly goes outside to have a cigarette with no shoes and no socks, even in winter. I ask if a British journalist would be permitted to see a cell. Palfreeman says that only Bulgarian journalists are allowed to do so.
"I'm very fortunate in having support from family and friends," Palfreeman tells me. "I've got a much higher level of support than anyone else in this prison and I mean that in every way. There are prisoners here who have never had visits from anyone. Sometimes their families are too poor or live in the wrong part of Bulgaria. Sometimes it's because they don't have ID cards. You have to have an ID card to come into prison. To get an ID card you need to pay money. So it all goes round in a circle. There are crazy people in here who should be in mental hospitals – although I don't know what the conditions there are like. Probably in Bulgarian mental hospitals they would be tortured! There's one man in here, a paraplegic, who has tried to commit suicide several times and they put him in hospital. He tried to hang himself. What do they do for him? Nothing! The prison system here is all about – 'stay here until we say you can go'. I'm eligible for parole after six more years, by which time I will have served half my sentence. (10 years out of 20 years) But what conditions have I fulfilled, what demands of the system have I fulfilled to be eligible? Or what conditions have I NOT fulfilled to be ineligible for parole. This isn't an open system."
Hearing Palfreeman's graphic account of the barbarity of the prison regime – violence from ill-educated guards, prisoners deprived of clothes, sanitation and heating, a diet to shame any European prison and, above all, the sense of the prisoners being left to fester reminds one of the perpetual refrain of "throw the key away" from enraged tabloid readers when they read of the terrible crimes of certain criminals in the UK. Ironically, this seems to be the Bulgarian attitude but for prisoners who are NOT fundamentally violent. And we talk here not of Palfreeman – a case that is open to different interpretations – but of people who have committed no crime except being illegal immigrants. Palfreeman tells me that among the prisoners in his cell are people from Busmantsi.
How, in the light of conditions that have undeniable echoes of Midnight Express, does Palfreeman keep so strong?
"I don't know, everyone's different, all bits of different things you put together – a little bit of spirituality or faith but I wouldn't say it's a predominant part of who I am – mingled with a bit of philosophy, stubbornness and anger. Some days I'm running on anger, some days on hope that maybe we can succeed in doing something to make this place better. When the lawyer returned the documents I'd been working on for two years (regarding the prisoners' association) I came back and had a big smile on my face and seven prisoners burst into applause. They were happy and that lifted my spirits because I was getting down that prisoners were not into unionising or collective bargaining."
The main goal of the prisoners' association, he says, is to have a body that can represent prisoners so that journalists can interview a spokesperson for those inside.
Our interview is suddenly interrupted midstream and Jock Palfreeman returns to the cell. It seems, to judge from Palfreeman's anecdotes, that the authorities perceive him and his fellow prisoners – in Orwellian jargon – to be "unpersons". Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the case, the conditions inside Sofia Central Prison – in particular the lack of a reliable reporting system for monitoring prisoners' conduct – should raise serious concerns.