Since the UK abolished the death penalty in the 1960s – the last enactment was in 1964 – it has become a staple of the cheaper end of the Fourth Estate to periodically reopen the debate and suggest that it should be reintroduced, if only for certain kinds of what the USA would call first-degree murder. Hacks and pundits complain that life sentences all too often do not really mean life.
Part of that convocation of the bellicose is quite sure that they would willingly put the rope round the neck of anyone condemned, pull the trigger at the firing squad, or throw the switch that energises the electric chair. The impression deliberately conveyed is that prison is some kind of soft option. But a series of recent events suggests otherwise.
A number of those told that they face life behind bars have been unable to face this fact: serial killer of the elderly Harold Shipman joined the former resident of 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester, Fred West, in taking his own life. And, had he not been committed to a secure hospital, Moors Murderer Ian Brady might well have joined them. He is committed to checking out early.
Brady, who was convicted along with his then girlfriend Myra Hindley in 1966, was declared criminally insane in 1985, and has been held at Ashworth Hospital on Merseyside ever since. He has appeared periodically before mental health tribunals but up until now these had been held in private, and with the result each time that his detention at Ashworth was confirmed.
Now, Brady has won the right to have his next tribunal appearance held in public, which will guarantee him plenty of media exposure. But that is not his objective: he wants to be transferred to a prison in Scotland. The reasoning is straightforward: at Ashworth he can be force-fed, but in an ordinary prison he could starve himself to death and thus be released from his sentence.
After all, Brady is now 73 and has no prospect of ever being released, such was the nature of his crimes, which included torture of his victims before killing them. But the supposedly “soft” life sentence is something he does not want to face any longer. Looking at previous cases, and his own lack of success at getting out of Ashworth, it looks very much as if his bid will not succeed.
For Ian Brady, there is no way out. That is what is meant when life really does mean life, and those trying to pretend otherwise while agitating for the reinstatement of capital punishment would do well to remember that.