An Australian Tourist, a Bulgarian Prison, and a Recording Session

Bulgaria, it appears, is a captured state.  I’ll get to that in a minute.  I first heard about Jock Palfreeman, an Australian serving a lengthy prison sentence in Bulgaria, through a fellow Australian.  The context was a message from my friend Kamala that was straightforward, to the effect of, “would you write a song about Jock?”

I’m never entirely sure what the answer is going to be to a question like that, because it always depends on whether I can come up with something worth singing, rather than whether the subject material is worth a song.  No one suggests subjects that aren’t worth writing about.  But the phrasing of her question was of the sort to light a fire under one’s ass — this was not a passive request, like, “have you ever thought about writing a song about Jock?”  This was active.  And although I’d known this women’s doctor and Socialist Alliance organizer for well over a decade quite well, she had never asked me to write a song before.

A quick exploration on the web made me wonder how I hadn’t heard of this case much earlier — but then, the world is so full of big and small stories of injustice, it all easily becomes a blur, even if the name of Jock Palfreeman may have graced the screen of my laptop in an anarchist news update at some point in the past twelve years.

It was twelve years ago this month, in December, 2007, when Jock made the fateful decision to involve himself in a confrontation between a group of football hooligans of the drunk and far right variety, and two Roma men outside of a metro station in Sofia, Bulgaria.  When Jock awoke, he was chained to a wall in a police station.  Later he learned that one of the football hooligans had died in the course of whatever happened in front of the Metro station in the early hours of that morning.

What followed was a baldly outrageous travesty of any semblance of justice.  Police testimony that backed up Jock’s recollections was ignored.  Video evidence was lost, found, and then lost again.  Jock was a streetwise traveler in a place that he knew could be dangerous, and he did have a knife on him.  But the stab wound Andrei Monov died from was made by a double-bladed knife, unlike the one Jock had, according to Bulgarian forensics experts, also ignored by the judge.

Monov came from a prominent family in Bulgaria, which at least in this instance has meant an innocent man being railroaded into a life sentence.  It’s impossible not to come to this conclusion, if you have any familiarity with what has gone on in this case.

That has been true since the trial in 2008, and it continued to be true throughout the many years of imprisonment in Bulgaria that followed for Jock Palfreeman, who became a widely respected advocate for prisoners’ rights during his time behind bars.  And it was still true last summer, when I wrote the song.

Since then, however, Jock’s case has gotten significantly more bizarre.  What was already a travesty of justice has become downright comedic.  In October, Jock was released on parole, after serving nearly twelve years in prison.  This kind of thing is normal in most cases, when it comes to parole.  What then followed wasn’t.  Jock’s parole is being reviewed.  There is no legal process for this review, it’s just being invented as they go.  Politically-driven, election season improvisation.  Jock is being used as a political football, to use a technical term.

I have no illusions about the power of my songs to influence a judge in Bulgaria.  But it happens to be the case that several of the songs my musical colleagues and I have been arranging, rehearsing and recording for my latest album are about people who are currently in prison, or being threatened with imprisonment.  When you’re recording a song about someone, regardless of how large or small your potential audience is, it behooves you to have some idea about what’s going on with their case.

Reality Winner was in prison when I wrote the song about her that appears on the album, and she’s still there.  Scott Walker in Arizona was facing a potential twenty-year sentence when I wrote the song, and he’s been acquitted since we recorded it.  That’s the title track.  The Rotherham 12, in England, were facing lengthy prison sentences, and they were acquitted before I wrote the song.  They’re still acquitted.  The children separated from their parents and imprisoned in camps at the US-Mexico border that we sing about in “So This Is What It’s Like” and “The Time To Act” are still separated from their parents, still imprisoned.

As of news reports in Australian media from this week, Jock Palfreeman may be returned to prison any day now, from the immigration detention center where he has been awaiting deportation to Australia since being paroled two months ago.  I’m still looking forward to changing the introduction to the song to “this is about a former political prisoner” — whether this happens sooner, or later.

David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response. Go to to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort. Another Portland is possible. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.