“I’m in Villawood!” Jock Palfreeman exclaimed, with the cheerful exuberance he displayed throughout an interview conducted through glass and wire-mesh partitions in the gloomy surroundings of the visiting room of Sofia central prison.
He told Green Left Weekly that it was the plight of refugees detained in Sydney's Villawood detention centre that first radicalised him. His first protest, as a high school student in Sydney, was a blockade of the offices of Villawood’s then operator Australasian Correctional Management on May Day in 2002.
A year later he organised students at his school to attend the “Books Not Bombs” student walkouts to protest against the war on Iraq.
It was because of his seeming inability to ignore injustice that he is now serving a 20-year sentence in Bulgaria.
One night, while on holiday in Sofia with English friends in 2008, he witnessed a gang of right-wing football hooligans attacking members of the persecuted Roma minority. He intervened to protect the victims and in the ensuing fight one of the hooligans was killed.
The dead youth had well-connected parents and after a trial that — to put it politely — did not meet international standards, Palfreeman was convicted of unprovoked murder.
His joke about being in Villawood was a reference to the composition of the foreigners’ section of the prison. When he was first imprisoned most of the inmates were similar to himself — foreigners who had fallen foul of what passes for a judicial system in Bulgaria.
Five years later, they are mostly from the Middle East and Africa and almost all are asylum seekers convicted for illegally entering Bulgaria. He is now sharing a cell with seven Iraqis and a Tamil from Sri Lanka, all of who are asylum seekers.
He pointed out that laws against illegal entry to Bulgaria specifically exempt refugees seeking asylum. However, as in Australia, the government finds ways to subvert its own laws if those laws protect refugees’ rights.
He explained that refugees arrested at the Bulgarian border are increasingly being denied the chance to claim asylum, but instead given the choice between imprisonment followed by deportation or, if they sign a confession, a six-month suspended sentence and immediate release in Bulgaria.
Unsurprisingly, most sign the confession.
The context of these seemingly generous plea deals is that Bulgaria, an impoverished country with extreme levels of racism and xenophobia, is not somewhere most refugees see the possibility of building new lives. It is a country whose own population will often leave when they get the chance, Palfreeman said.
So refugees released with suspended sentences will continue travelling to their intended destinations in Western Europe. Presumably some make it but those who are arrested in neighbouring countries — usually Romania — and deported back to Bulgaria cannot claim asylum because of their earlier signed confessions.
They now must serve the sentence previously suspended in addition to a new sentence for their second “illegal entry”. After serving a year or more in jail, they are deported.
Refugees in Sofia central prison staged a hunger strike on April 26. It was suspended a week later when authorities promised their release. This promise proved false, and the refugees had decided to resume their hunger strike after the May 12 national elections if the new government had not responded to their demands.
Some jailed refugees, who see deportation as inevitable, are campaigning to be deported immediately rather than after lengthy imprisonment. Other jailed refugees, who face certain torture and death in their home countries, are campaigning against deportation.
In either case, Palfreeman, who speaks Bulgarian, has become the “go to” person for foreign prisoners needing assistance. For example, he is now helping his Tamil cellmate fight deportation to Sri Lanka.
“He’s a real refugee,” Palfreeman said, emphasising the word real. He told GLW that Bulgarian intelligence officers had regularly interviewed his cellmate, asking questions supplied by their Sri Lankan counterparts. The case is now before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Palfreeman’s advocacy for and organising with his fellow prisoners has not just been on an informal level. Working with other prisoners playing a similar role throughout the prison, he was one of the key initiators of the Bulgarian Prisoners’ Rehabilitation Association (BPRA) and is now its chairperson.
The BPRA was registered with the Sofia city court on July 26 last year and is the first self-organised prisoners’ association in Bulgarian history. Its primary aim is to bring Bulgarian jails up to the standards of other European Union countries.
Palfreeman stressed to GLW that the prisoners were not demanding unconditional release or avoiding responsibility for whatever crimes some of them have committed — they are demanding their legal rights as prisoners and due process before the courts.
He cited the report from May last year by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which gives a damning picture of Bulgarian prison conditions.
Much of the report is devoted to the dismal infrastructure of Bulgarian jails: overcrowding, dilapidated buildings, lack of toilets or washing facilities in most cells, totally unsanitary toilets and washing facilities in communal areas, unhygienic kitchens and pipes leaking sewage, for example.
However, Palfreemen said these physical problems with infrastructure were only 20% of the problems in Bulgarian jails. The main problem was with the management of the system and with Bulgarian legal practice, which were two sides of the same issue.
“In other countries if there is not a law against something it is assumed to be legal,” he said. "In Bulgaria it is the other way round. Unless something is specifically allowed it is considered to be illegal. In jail almost nothing is allowed."
The BPRA deals with issues such as violence by staff against prisoners, the punishment of prisoners who make complaints through the proper channels, protection of prisoners who physically and sexually assaulted other prisoners, suspicious deaths dismissed as suicide, denial of education and work, and the parole system. Only 1% of prisoners get parole — no grounds are given for its denial and it can be obtained only by corruptly paying authorities.
Palfreeman said conditions had got worse during the government of the GERB party headed by Boyko Borisov, who became Prime Minister in 2009. Although Borisov resigned in March after mass protests, GERB’s policies and appointments in the bureaucracy have remained the same under the caretaker government in office until the May 12 election.
The only law passed by the GERB government relating to jails was to restrict prisoners’ use of postal services and make it impossible for prisoners to prove they had sent letters to courts or other legal authorities.
Palfreeman described GERB as the “police party”. Despite being a close ally of the US, when Borisov was mayor of Sofia in 2006, in confidential cables later published by WikiLeaks, US diplomats noted his involvement in corrupt oil deals, links to methamphetamine trafficking and use of bribes and threats in dealing with journalists.
Palfreeman pointed out that in Bulgaria the police and organised crime were overlapping entities and the Borisov government had given the police more weapons and less scrutiny. In jails, the GERB government allowed guards to carry batons routinely rather than, as previously, only in response to specific situations. This has increased violence against prisoners.
Borisov’s neoliberal agenda had been reflected in the Ministry of Justice’s Prison Works corporation increasing its profitability for potential privatisation through price gouging and selling stolen supplies intended for prisons.
Racism in Bulgaria is both institutionalised and prevalent in society. This is reflected in the Roma minority being dramatically over-represented in Bulgarian jails. Palfreeman estimates 80% of the prison population to be Roma, mostly convicted of petty crimes such as small-scale theft.
Borisov played the racist card in politics and it was under his government that the foreigners’ section of Sofia prison was filled with asylum seekers.
The injustice of Palfreeman’s conviction has received some attention in the Australian media and from activists worldwide. From Australia to Germany there have been protests demanding his freedom. Meanwhile, inside Sofia central prison, Palfreeman is organising with his fellow prisoners against the myriad of injustices that take place inside its walls.