Saturday, 7 November 2015

Sharing a Cell with a Murderer

As far back as I can recall I have been opposed to the idea of the death penalty. Because it is utterly irreversible, miscarriages of justice – of which there are surprising numbers – in capital cases leave no real remedy, especially for the surviving family of an innocent person who has been executed. That is why the death penalty is, by its very nature, a terrifying weapon that can be used or abused by the state.

The shadow of the gallows
Britain has a long and inglorious record when it comes to miscarriages of justice. It can take years, sometimes decades, for wrongful convictions to be quashed.

In most cases, thanks to new rules introduced by the last Labour government and made worse by the Coalition, victims of miscarriages of justice now receive absolutely nothing by way of compensation for their years in prison, regardless of them having lost jobs, savings, homes, families and any realistic prospect of finding work again, let alone the ongoing impact of poor mental and physical health. It has been calculated that a prison sentence can age a prisoner up to ten years quicker than people outside, so it’s not just the stolen years of imprisonment that cause loss and suffering.

It is also true that the most difficult cases often involve very strong public opinions because of entirely understandable revulsion over the worst crimes. I well recall the popular demands for the public hanging of Stefan Kiszko back in 1976 (even though Britain had abandoned public executions after 1868). The sexually-motivated murder of little Lesley Moleseed reignited calls for the restoration of capital punishment in Britain.

Stefan Kiszko
Of course, we now know that Mr Kiszko had been framed by detectives who deliberately concealed the vital forensic evidence that proved his innocence of a terrible crime. He served 16 years in prison – being beaten and bullied – before an administrative error led to the disclosure of the hidden forensic report from the stored case files. He was eventually freed in 1992 after his conviction was quashed. Driven close to madness by his experiences, he remained in a psychiatric hospital for months.

Sadly he died in 1993 aged just 41 and had never even received the full compensation settlement he had been awarded because of his ordeal. Nowadays, it seems unlikely that he would even received a penny piece, especially since at the time of his release from prison no alternative perpetrator had been identified.

What made this case even more terrible was that the real killer, Ronald Castree, was allowed to remain free and unpunished for many years and went on to commit further sexual offences until he was caught in 2006 in connection with an entirely separate offence. Had the original investigation and forensic evidence been dealt with properly in 1975, he might have been identified 30 years earlier.

Above all, had Stefan Kiszko been executed – as many demanded at the time of his conviction – the state would have judicially murdered an innocent man, with police connivance. Of course, once a wrongly convicted person is dead, it is comparatively rare for there to be any continuing investigation of a case, so real killers can slip through the net.

Not really the good old days
Perhaps it is because of this and other terrible miscarriages of justice that public opinion in the UK appears to be turning against the idea of capital punishment. Back in March the British Social Attitudes Report revealed that under half – 48 percent of those who responded to the survey – were in favour of the death penalty. In 1983 when the survey began that figure was 75 percent, even though capital punishment had been suspended by Parliament in 1965 and was finally abolished in 1998 with the passing of the Human Rights Act.

During my own stay in prison I met a number of fellow inmates who, had capital punishment still been on the statute books at the time of their trials, would have almost certainly gone to the gallows. In different prisons I shared cells with two individuals who had both committed murder and so I had the first-hand experience of talking to them about their crimes, as well as their perceptions of the impact that these heinous offences had had upon the families of their victims. It was a highly informative, if involuntary, education.

Behind a cell door with a murderer
Perhaps unsurprisingly, both expressed regret and guilt for what they had done. In both cases the victim was a family member and this meant that they were all too aware of the consequences of their actions.

One had been cut off entirely by every other member of his family; the other was still being supported, but never returned from a visit by his relatives without breaking down in tears in our cell once the door had been slammed shut. As he once remarked to me “I’ve killed my entire family, myself included.” This man longed for death, but refrained from attempting suicide solely because he didn’t want to inflict yet another bereavement on his elderly parents.

To some extent, murderers in our prisons do form a separate caste. Other prisoners are acutely aware of their crimes. It’s hard to sit behind a locked cell door drinking tea without glancing at the hands of a man who you know has committed murder. Taking the life of another human being is still recognised as an enormity, even among those convicted for other serious offences such as robbery, drug trafficking or committing grievous assaults.

Manson: not your average murderer
It may seem counterintuitive, but I actually came to prefer sharing a cell with lifers. Generally speaking they tend to be much calmer and quieter than those prisoners who are serving shorter terms and have a fixed release date. In my experience they also seem to have much greater respect for personal space and other inmates’ property.

I also came to recognise the truth that there is always a human being – even if a very damaged, and sometimes dangerous, one – behind the label of being a ‘murderer’. And, of course, very few actually look as demented or demonic as Charlie Manson did in his mugshots taken in the 1960s. The vast majority of lifers in for murder do appear very ordinary and unremarkable people.

In one prison I worked for nearly a year with a mass murderer who is very unlikely ever to be released. Many years ago he was part of a gang who massacred an entire family in their own home and his crimes remain notorious. He had entered a guilty plea at trial and would almost certainly have been sentenced to die prior to the suspension of capital punishment. Yet after all these years he was still alive, a relic of an earlier era: ageing, suffering from increasing infirmity and utterly crushed by remorse and regret for his actions when he was barely out of his teens.

I've since seen a black and white police photograph of him taken at the time of his arrest decades ago. Then he looked every inch the cocky, violent young thug. Now he is a shrunken, frail, silver-haired old man who is exquisitely polite and well read in ancient history. Looking at him today, with a cup of tea in his hand and spectacles balanced on his nose, it is difficult to associate him with his heinous acts committed as a young man. He resembles a bookish retired civil servant. Having been repeatedly turned down for parole, almost certainly because of the notoriety of his crimes, he is resigned to dying in prison and admits that he actually looks forward to it.

Hands of a killer?
Although I have always been opposed to capital punishment myself, I must admit that it has crossed my mind since meeting so many of these now elderly inmates who have no realistic hope of release (indeed, some are now so institutionalised that the very idea of life outside the prison walls terrifies them after 30 or more years in custody) that a quick death shortly after trial and a dismissed appeal might have been a more humane option than being condemned to rotting away slowly in a concrete box. As prisoners age and become weaker or more infirm, then they can also become prey for younger, more aggressive inmates who view the elderly cons as ripe targets for exploitation and bullying.

If anyone reading this believes that a life sentence – especially a ‘whole life tariff’ – is somehow a soft option, I would suggest that it is actually a much more terrifying and harsh punishment than a quick death at the end of a rope or a lethal injection. If you really want someone who has committed terrible crimes to suffer for years – even many decades – consumed with guilt and remorse, then a life sentence can be immeasurably more effective as a form of punishment. I’ve seen it in action for myself. It is absolutely terrifying.


  1. Doing anything that is irreversible is never a good idea. You can't unkill someone after killing them. There is no judicial system in the world that is 100% foolproof and always gets it right. The UK's has a really bad record for putting right miscarriages of justice basically because of the refusal of government and the judiciary to admit that anyone ever gets anything wrong from police to lawyers and certainly the tabloids.

    Prison is far from the holiday the tabloids paint it and a whole life tariff spent in that environment is more than punishment for any crime. People come out of prison damaged both mentally and physically after even short sentences because of the inhumanity of the penal system unless they are very lucky even if they went in emotionally sound.. I know for myself it has taken me almost two years to recover emotionally from being inside and physically because my medical conditions received no treatment have deteriorated to the point I'm now disabled. And I didn't serve anywhere close to a life tariff.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I think that many people who have no personal experience of our criminal justice system really do believe the old lie that "if you've done nothing wrong, you've nothing to fear." They really don't understand that our adversarial court system is often not about justice being done, but more about the presentation (and manipulation of evidence, jurors' emotions etc). Deliberate withholding of crucial evidence or forensic material is also a massive problem.

      Once convicted, a person who hasn't got substantial financial resources and/or a critical mass of loyal supporters is pretty much doomed. Had Stefan Kiszko's elderly mother not refused to quit in her mission to exonerate her only son, I have no doubt that he would have died in prison.

      As we both know from personal experience of much shorter sentences, prison can cause significant damage at various levels. The tabloid media dishonesty and distortions of the truth are disgusting, not only because of the mischief they can cause in terms of public perceptions of prison reform, but because of the distress these stories - many of them bogus or exaggerated - cause for victims of crime. I'm sorry to learn of your own health problems. I hope things will improve given time.

  2. On the other hand, where evidence & a confession make a 100% case then maybe there's an argument for capital punishment as opposed to the taxpayers paying an average £30k per year to imprison someone for 20+ years.

    1. Unfortunately as we saw in famous previous miscarriage cases this is no guarantee as the police can plant evidence and extract false confessions from mentally disabled people so your suggestion would hardly be a foolproof way of determining guilt and thus the death penalty

    2. But I subscribe to the school of thought that would accept 1 innocent man being executed if 99 guilty men met the same fate.

    3. That's all well and good but what if that 1 innocent man was your son, father or even yourself?

  3. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

    1. Easy to say until it's you being hung or electrocuted for something you didn't do.

  4. Having been though court, and acquitted and looking at 15-20, maybe a death penalty is not the best idea, personally I would have jumped at a capital sentence with what I was facing, thankfully some key facts came out in court, no thanks to the powers that be. And am now free, unemployable, but free

  5. This is one of the most enlightening articles I have read in a long time. You posted thought provoking information that will be stirring in my brain long after today. I can not imagine being sentenced to life in prison. I was arrested once on a minor charge and was bailed out by a bail bonds company in Gardena, CA. I felt myself going crazy after just a few hours in a jail cell and can't imagine how these people must feel. You can not reverse a death penalty case so it is a tough call on whether it is a right or wrong decision. Great article.