Jock Palfreeman: Sofia Central Prison is a ‘fascist dystopian dungeon’ under Peter Krestev

Not even 10 years inside has quashed Jock Palfreeman’s spirits. A lesser man might have crumbled. To most people the processes that jailed Palfreeman, and then upheld his conviction for the murder of Andrei Monov*, were marked by blatant corruption and lies.

He has, to all except jaundiced observers, long since surpassed the point whereby his sentence could be seen as ‘rehabilitation’. During his decade in the dungeon he has endured numerous punishment beatings, spells in solitary confinement, the withholding of privileges and, perhaps most painfully, the apathy of his home country’s government. “Even David Hicks, who spent time at Guantanamo, received more support from the Australian government than I did. They don’t care because I’m not the son of a wealthy business magnate,” he says.

Palfreeman, now 31, is no longer the boyish Aussie once likened to a young Matt Damon. He’s a veteran campaigner whose numerous battles with the authorities have marked him out as ‘a troublemaker’ to the recently reinstated Prison Director, Peter Krestev. Palfreeman had hailed the progress made by Yolant Yordanov, who had replaced Krestev. But his tenure proved short-lived and Krestev’s reinstatement was a bitter blow to Jock and his fellow prisoners.

Palfreeman has been at Kazichene since June 2017

Palfreeman’s presence fills the visitors’ area at Kazichene, the open prison a few kilometres east of Sofia to which he was transferred in June 2017. His thunderous laugh resonates around the room. He speaks at a machine gun 120 words-a-minute. He covers everything from the dubious merits of boarding school through to Bulgarian politics and Angela Merkel’s policy on refugees. Ironically, it occurs to me that he would make a formidable lawyer.

He says that nobody who really knows him believes he poses any danger to anyone. (The only exception would be Andrei Monov’s family and friends who have probably convinced themselves that he is dangerous for understandable reasons.) Yet Palfreeman feels he deserved more support. “The Bulgarian Left have washed their hands of me. For some people on the Left, on the other hand, I’ve been an inspiration. There are not many people who know me who don’t have something good to say about me. But when I walk into a room I divide people.”

For years his only contact with the outside world was two 40-minute bimonthly visits, conducted via telephone behind a mesh at Sofia Central Prison. He admits he may be institutionalised. But he still sees the funny side and reverts to the old trusted formula from Joseph Heller’s satirical novel Catch 22. “If I’m not crazy after all that, I really must be a sociopath!”

His 2015 nomination for a human rights award, controversially proposed by the Bulgaria Helsinki Committee, confirmed him as a polarising force in Bulgaria. He stresses, however, that most of his enemies know little of the circumstances that led to his incarceration, instead believing lies in the ‘yellow press’.

Fighting for other prisoners is a proud cause

Palfreeman is now a dedicated anti-fascist activist who has fought hard to improve conditions for prisoners. His main ‘rebellion’ has been the creation of the Bulgarian Prisoners’ Association, the first such union in Bulgaria. He says that other inmates, for whom he has become a fearless representative, were happy that outsiders were enraged by his nomination. To them it proved he must be doing something right!

On January 26th, members of the Bulgarian Prisoners Association staged a protest outside the Justice Ministry demanding an end to violations of prisoners’ rights. The banner reads: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”

He is most vocal in his criticism of Peter Krestev, the current Sofia Prison Director, who was reinstated by the interim government after a year-and-a-half away. If Palfreeman is angry, it’s not just for himself; it’s because the improvements to Sofia’s prisons have been overturned. He talks a lot about the welfare of others. But, of course, his fate is inseparable from others because corruption has a big reach.

Most agree that he should be eligible for parole. He should, at least, be on the lowest rung of security by now, as run-up to parole. Instead many ‘privileges’, including day releases (justly earned in his and social workers’ opinion) have now been revoked by Krestev. Palfreeman says that Krestev is motivated by a personal vendetta against him. He predicts that his parole bid will also be rejected despite social workers believing that it’s long overdue.

Palfreeman is adamant that Krestev should never have got his old job back. GERB, who had promised to overturn appointments made by the previous Bulgarian Socialist Party government (the Oresharski government had upheld Krestev’s appointment), reneged on their pledge. Not that Palfreeman is really all that surprised that the BSP-dominated interim government re-appointed Krestev in April 2017. He has long concluded that the BSP is the most ‘right-wing’ political force in Bulgaria, citing, for example, their current opposition to the ratification of the Istanbul Convention and the uproar over the exact meaning of ‘gender’.

“The previous Prison Director (Yolant Yordanov) was sacked because he was a reformist,” Palfreeman tells me. “He did 20 years’ reform in under two years. He returned power to the social workers, so that when social workers testified to someone’s good character, their word was taken at face value. Prisoners should know that if they conform to rules, they will progress. But now, with the return of the corrupt system, everything has become centralised again. The Director says ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The principles behind the entire system have been destroyed. Prisoners used to know that, if they followed rules, social workers could follow through on promises.  Now that’s not possible, simply because the Director says ‘no’. A social worker recently admitted to me being instructed to write a damning assessment of me. This person told me: ‘You shouldn’t be here but I either write a negative report about you or I’ll have to hand in my resignation.’ So I suppose I should be grateful that I was finally told the truth.”

Palfreeman says that prison social workers will now only come clean off the record. “One social worker told me that if the other Director was still here that I’d be on the lowest security classification possible.”

He does not anticipate parole

He makes clear that he is no longer even contemplating the possibility of transfer to Australia. He describes it as “a ship that has long since sailed”. He doesn’t quite get the fuss about transfer in any case. After all, he would not have been freed, just relocated to an Australian prison. “If any money had been paid to the Monovs” (the parents of the deceased) – as part of indemnities – “then they would have used the money to stop my transfer anyway. The money was for transfer, so if I’m not transferred, then there’s no need to pay the money,” he now says.

Parole, he admits, is a separate problem because there would be other influences around the judge, notably from the Monovs, notwithstanding the corrupt nature of the whole process. “It’s not hard to appeal to a Bulgarian judge about my case. You just appeal to nationalism. ‘He’s a foreigner. He killed my son.’ If you don’t understand the case and you’re not an objective judge, it’s easy.”

So when he does make a formal bid, he expects rejection. Even though all prison staff who know him say he deserves to go free. There are, he explains, two kinds of parole. The first is probationary parole. The second is parole without probation, i.e. release. Before someone becomes eligible for parole they should be on the lowest rung of the prison’s security regime. But Palfreeman has been denied this status. And he says it’s all on the whim of Krestev who hates him. Even when his aunt (who had just recovered from a serious illness) came to visit him last year from the UK, he wasn’t allowed out to see her.

Previous Director’s work sabotaged

The head of Kazichene has little power, according to Palfreeman, as long as Krestev remains in place. “The governor of Kazichene serves the overlord, Krestev,” he tells me. “Even his staff want Krestev to go. Their job has become a joke. The previous Director, Yordanov, was using money to make renovations and improve guards’ conditions. He created climate control for all guards’ cubicles. Up until 2015 they had no heating and no air con. Guards were just stationed in iron boxes; it was minus 5 in winter and stifling in summer. Yordanov also installed PVC frames.  He renovated the visiting room, the lawyers’ room, and the corridors in Sofia Central Prison. Every month he improved another section. He appealed a lot to the private sector – to donate cement, iron and paint, and even approached Sofia Municipality.”

Palfreeman was not entirely surprised that Krestev was returned to his old post. “I always said that the two years with Yordanov were the calm before the storm.” He says that he repeatedly warned many people to “make hay while the sun shines” (he can come up with the Bulgarian equivalent very easily nowadays, having mastered the language) because the good times wouldn’t last.

“People were shocked but they’d been living in a fantasy for 2 years. Recently there was a rape in the grounds of the prison. There’s also been heroin dealing and violence. When I left Sofia Central Prison, in June 2017, the prison was very clean and people had respect and hope. Everything was newly painted and all the prisoners were doing their job. Both staff and prisoners had pride in the prison. I went back on December 22 for Saint Anastasia Day. I re-visited rooms that had been spick-and-span. The visitors’ room hadn’t been cleaned in months and garbage cans were overflowing in the corridors. Staff morale was rock bottom again.”

Palfreeman says he was transferred to Kazichene in the nick of time. “Social workers said I was lucky to get out when I did because Sofia Central Prison was getting worse with each passing day. The guards were becoming more corrupt and the director was handing out more punishments for fake violations.”

He believes that Krestev’s goal is to undo all his predecessor’s good work. “He wants to lock every door and make prisoners spend all their time in one room. Right after his appointment everyone who went to church on a work day was punished. Krestev really hates church – I don’t know why. He hates any type of activity that gets prisoners out of this environment.  He banned a visiting evangelical group because they wanted to hand out soap and other hygienic products to prisoners over Christmas. Even the head social worker went two months ago because, at the time of Krestev’s ‘counter revolution’, she was seen as one of Yordanov’s allies. The staff are worse off than us. Even some who started working after 2015 are deeply shocked.”

Palfreeman is naturally upset that his own privileges have been revoked. But it’s clear that his anger at the overall deterioration is genuine. He blames corruption, pure and simple. “This type of management inevitably leads to mass torture. Sofia Central Prison is reverting to a fascist dystopian dungeon whereby regular beatings are commonplace. It’s symbolic of the hypocrisy of prison authorities that they continue to embezzle funds and ignore major human rights’ violations. This should be a major concern, indeed a priority, for the general public. It’s taxpayers’ money that is being embezzled, after all.”

On the 26th January the General Directorate of Prisons threw a “celebration” together with the Work Group on the reform of the Bulgarian penal system, marking the successful completion of said reforms. Palfreeman and many others viewed this ‘commemoration’ as a joke and arranged a counter protest.

*Palfreeman was sentenced to 20 years in prison after an incident in the early hours of December 28th 2007 in which he intervened to rescue a young Roma who was being attacked by a group of drunken football supporters. Palfreeman said that the gang then turned on him. In the ensuing melee Andrei Monov died from a stab wound. It has never been proven that this was Palfreeman’s knife and he has no recollection of the stabbing.

In the second part of our interview with Jock Palfreeman, he reveals more of his state of mind after a decade behind bars. He re-examines the incident that led to his imprisonment. He also talks more about the regime at Kazichene and reveals why he no longer even feels like an Australian citizen.