The Village Murderer

The Village Murderer

by Bill Hartley

There has been a great deal of coverage in the press of late about a decision by the Parole Board to grant early release to a notorious sex offender. The Board has the thankless task of trying to reduce the prison population, its current size caused in part by the last Labour government’s creation of the IPP (Imprisonment for Public Protection) sentence. Indeterminate sentences sound fine in theory and play well with the public but leave the Board with a considerable challenge when assessing risk. A court will of course have passed such a sentence because it saw the risk as considerable.

For many prisoners, the ante room to release from a long sentence is the Open Prison. Testing the prisoner in such conditions can provide the Parole Board with key information to assist the decision making process. However, by extending so much trust to prisoners, open prisons are prone to embarrassing incidents which can find their way into the newspapers. Bruised by political criticism prison managers have tightened the decision making process.

This wasn’t always the case. Admittedly assessing a prisoner as suitable for ‘open’ conditions was fairly rigorous but what happened after that was nothing more than a judgement call by an individual, aided by experience or ‘jailcraft’ as it used to be described. Now, decisions about sending prisoners to work outside are taken in committee; spreading the risk in case damage limitation becomes necessary. The old judgement calI approach had its faults but produced results that could be positive and occasionally quite funny. Sometimes inadvertently a great deal of good was done.

Sudbury is an open prison in rural Derbyshire, once a wartime US military hospital. Prisoners who were allowed to ‘work out’ usually got something meaningful to do, although the term could be broadly interpreted. One lifer, a former engineer, was said to have saved a fortune at a hospital in Derby with his suggestions on how to improve fuel economy for heating. Others worked in hotels, factories and bakeries. Supervision was never easy and the senior officer responsible struggled to get round to see all his charges. Lack of supervision did cause failures. Particularly common was the prisoner who developed an extracurricular relationship (a grave breach of trust). It wasn’t so much doing it as failing to tell the prison. Most managed to keep a low profile but should the relationship break down then there was an easy opportunity to take revenge. Overall though anyone coming to the end of a sentence which had run into double figures would be foolish to behave recklessly.

Indeed, the real problem running an open prison isn’t the criminals doing serious time but those serving short sentences who make up the numbers. They have less incentive to conform and often an inability to think ahead and see where their misbehaviour might lead: back to a real prison, inevitably. Prisoners serving long sentences, properly handled, can be an important tool for controlling the others, since they don’t want their lives disrupted.

One regular user of prisoner labour was a local farm. Actually farm is an exaggeration. It was run by a couple and their daughter though mum and dad were past it. The daughter’s ruling passion was show jumping and everything on the farm seemed subjugated to this. As a consequence, prisoner labour was very useful but some men found it difficult to cope with her. Intrigued, I asked a colleague why this was and he agreed to introduce us. We drove out on a hot summer’s day. Arriving at the farm we found mum and dad dozing in the kitchen and went in search of the daughter. A knocking sound took us round the side of a building, where we found the daughter and a prisoner. The latter greeted our arrival with an imploring expression. It seemed he couldn’t quite believe what he was in involved in. His job was to hold a fence post at arm’s length, whilst she drove it in with a sledge hammer. However, since the weather was hot she was dressed in what she thought was appropriate for the conditions. Imagine a forty something woman in a metallic silver bikini and wellingtons, swinging a sledgehammer.

Horse related activities did get one deputy governor into some bother. The prisoner behind this had been a businessman who’d asked for day release. He may have been vague about the precise nature of his equine plans. The deputy governor was to discover this when the prisoner appeared on the front page of the Sun out foxhunting. This earned the dep a call from the Director General. Rather naively he attempted to point out to the deeply annoyed DG that there was nothing in the rules which prevented a prisoner from foxhunting. Comparing the activity to being allowed out to play football probably didn’t help either.

Having been there since the late 1940s the prison was deeply embedded in the local community. On a summer’s evening it might be difficult to determine where the prison ended and the village began. Men in prison clothing could be seen socialising with elderly members of the bowling club around the fringes of the green. The newsagent business at the local shop survived only because of prisoner subscriptions and the immaculate state of the village’s green spaces came courtesy of the prison gardens party, not the local council. In return, a considerable amount of intelligence was fed back from locals. On two sides of the prison were well lit main roads. The other two bordered woods and farmland. Logically anyone smuggling contraband after dark would choose one of the latter to reach the prison. Surprisingly they never seemed to, either being caught by the police parked at an isolated lay by or reported by locals who had a sixth sense when an unfamiliar vehicle appeared on their patch. Eventually we concluded that criminals from Stoke or Birmingham viewed the countryside at night as a scary place to be avoided.

Not far from the prison was an isolated village with a number of elderly residents. The former rectory would have made an ideal location for a Miss Marple mystery. A retired couple were using their large Georgian house for mushroom growing. All proceeds to charitable causes, so prisoner labour could be justified. Actually mushroom growing on a small scale isn’t particularly labour intensive and the prisoner had broadened his activities.

Few murderers actually look the part but this one did. He was tall and powerfully built, a man of few words with a brooding presence. I found him seated by the Aga with the old couple enjoying some quiet time as they listened to Radio 4. The husband was a member of the Prison’s Board of Visitors as it used to be called; a committee of civilians with an oversight role. Later, as we took a stroll around, I learned more. The job of delivering mushrooms to neighbours had led to his establishing relationships with various elderly people who were mostly at home all day. From there he progressed to regular checks on the welfare of the most vulnerable. Such people living in rural areas can be easy prey to a variety of conmen, ranging from distraction burglars to those claiming to have spotted building ‘problems’ in urgent need of attention. Well not in this particular village. Long years in prison had taught this lifer how to spot a dodgy character. He probably knew what such people were up to before they’d begun to think about it themselves. Unlike the community policeman he was on patrol every day and wasn’t open to discussions. A call from an elderly resident would have him round there rapidly. Facing a man who’d done hard jail time and seemed capable of using violence was a highly effective deterrent. During his time at the jail the village remained crime free.

It’s unlikely that such lightly supervised employment would be permitted today. HM Prison and Probation Service have ‘protocols’ for almost everything now and the risk real or imaginary could probably not be ignored. Twenty years ago with its fairly casual approach towards employment and social activities, Sudbury was not only well embedded in the local community but could also turn a blind eye to prisoners doing good.

BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service and writes from Yorkshire


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2 Responses to The Village Murderer

  1. David Ashton says:

    I don’t wish to get into a criminology debate, but would say Pareto had a point when he said the FIRST punishment should be hard, not soft.

  2. It’s very common practice in the US to channel inmates returning to the community through halfway houses. Unfortunately, the halfway houses are situated in the same ghettos that generated the inmates. Not much good comes of this, but it does help with overcrowding. Inmates in halfway houses open up space in actual prisons.

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