Hazel McHaffie

Ronnie Kray

Broadmoor

Broadmoor. The very word carried a deeply chilling resonance. The most infamous high security hospital in the world. Makes me think of spine-chilling names like Peter Sutcliffe, Ronnie Kray, Charles Bronson … serial killing, cannibalism, paedophilia, arson, and the like heinous crimes. Or the horrific occasion in 1977, when two inmates trapped a third in a locked area in Broadmoor, and tortured him to death, skinning him alive, ramming a spoon into his brain, before garotting him. What kind of a mind could conceive of, and calculatedly carry out, such barbaric acts? I still remember the shivery sense of profound relief when these men were locked away in this maximum security psychiatric hospital facility for the criminally insane. Little public sympathy for them; widespread fear should they ever be released; a general ‘throw away the key’ mentality! ‘Monsters’, ‘evil incarnate’, ‘irredeemable’. ‘The more whole-life sentences running sequentially the better.’

But TV journalist Jonathan Levi, and cultural historian Emma French, have uncovered a much more nuanced picture of this notorious place. In their book: Inside Broadmoor, (published in 2019 but written before the new hospital was opened in the December of that year) they bring together their observations based on nearly ten years observing and interviewing staff, experts and the patients themselves, and they find that the staff really believe in redemption and rehabilitation – at least in most cases. No matter what they’ve done these men deserve to be treated humanely, and they aim to give them the best chance of a future.

This generosity of spirit from the staff comes in spite of the fact that the threat of violence is ever present. There are on average five physical assaults on staff members each week, but violence is seen as intrinsic to some of the medical conditions these patients suffer from, so it’s viewed more compassionately here than by the public at large.

The authors asked why did the men commit such dastardly deeds? Might they do it again? Can clinicians unravel the mysteries of their brain chemistry and render them safe? Are any conditions untreatable? Is there such a thing as pure evil? What can we do with those who are beyond help? What draws people to this work: 8-900 staff at any given time, all sworn not to reveal any information outside the hospital?  If the inmates are themselves the victims of appalling histories, does society owe them anything in compensation?

It’s hard to believe that 200 of Britain’s most dangerous men can be housed here together, maximum unrelenting security measures notwithstanding, some of them day in day out with no reprieve of any kind for decades. Each one suffering from a serious mental disorder rendering every man a grave and immediate risk to the public, not to mention their combined threat.

There is a popular misconception that, when someone goes to Broadmoor, they are there for life; in reality only a very few high-profile criminally insane individuals remain there for decades. Over the years a lot of work has gone into de-stigmatising and altering perception of severe mental illness, with great emphasis on intensive programmes of drug and psychological therapies. The old prison mentality and ethos has largely gone. As a result, nowadays, the average stay for a Broadmoor patient is less than 6 years, and there is a notably lower reoffending rate than in the UK prison population overall. This is not to say the men all go free into the community – depending on their diagnosis and progress they may be sent to a variety of other less high security institutions.

The demographics of today’s patients have changed radically over the last 150 years. Religious and ethnic factors play a significant part in this, and the authors concluded that, It is tragically clear that work needs to be done urgently to address these inequalities.

What really emerges is the vulnerability of these men alongside their criminal insanity.

It is nothing short of chilling  that … the fate of many Broadmoor patients was fixed from early childhood. Critically, theirs was a childhood not just of deprivation and economic hardship, but of abuse too … Childhood experiences, often shocking and sickening beyond belief, seal the fate of many patients very early on.

One illustrative case is Dillon, born into a ‘satanic’ family. Father broke his bones, sexually abused him, and raped and beat his mother. From birth, mother rejected Dillon, convinced he was evil. She sexually abused him and tried to kill him repeatedly. He was kept locked up in the attic, not allowed to talk to his brothers, or tethered naked to a post and made to eat food off the floor like a dog. By the age of 5 he was an arsonist. From the age of 7 he went into care but became arsonist, kidnapper, violent offender, out of control alcoholic. What chance did this boy have in life? And yet most of us don’t see beyond the violent, criminally insane adult. The staff in Broadmoor do.

One consequence of receiving effective medication, therapy and healing, is that patients can arrive at a deeply vulnerable moment; they begin to have consciousness of the crime that brought them to the hospital in the first place. This is a point of profound fragility. In some cases it’s more than they can handle and proves lethal; they take their own lives. Suicide is rendered possible in the lower risk areas, especially in Victorian buildings where ligature points, such as bars at the windows, have remained because of a shortage of funding to make the necessary alterations.

Hmm, a shortage of funding … Maintaining these dangerous men in secure units under constant surveillance is horrendously expensive. It costs upwards of £300,000 per annum to keep each patient in Broadmoor – five times the cost of a prison stay. Peter Sutcliffe’s 32 year stay in Broadmoor cost the taxpayer in the region of £10 million. In just one of a number of rooftop protests, Charles Bronson did £250,000 of damage.

I found this book profoundly challenging – challenging my preconceptions, my prejudices, my lack of real understanding: the barbed wire around my own reactions. I commend it to you.

 

 

 

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