Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Murdering Bastards part iii or Human Rights! Huzzah!

Not very long ago I wrote a couple of blogs (Murdering Bastards and Murdering Bastards part ii), about Ian Brady and the public hearing concerning his appeal to return to the general prison population.

I was not terribly surprised to find lots of responders to the blog falling squarely into the bring back hanging for murdering bastards camp. These criminals, including, but not limited to child sex offenders and murderers, and particularly sadistic or deranged serial killers tend to elicit a visceral and, some might say, irrational response. 

I consider myself to be, and am generally considered by others to be on the liberal side of thinking. I certainly feel that there is no place in a civilised society for state sanctioned killing in the form of capital punishment, or, for that matter, in many politicised forms, and I’m not necessarily excluding foreign conflicts of various kinds in that statement.

The subject of whole life tariffs for punishment of particular serious crimes is back in the news this week, and, once again, certain members of the press, and, indeed the general public, if some of the comments I’ve seen on FaceBook are anything to go by, are up in arms.

This time, the European Court of Human Rights has stepped in to make a new ruling on the subject of whole life tariffs in the UK. 

As I understand it, a panel of seventeen judges in the Grand Chamber ruled that it was a breach of human rights to impose a life tariff at sentencing that did not allow for the possibility of review or release, concluding that a whole life tariff was “inhuman and degrading”.

Well yes, I think that almost goes without saying.

Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile
The same people who are up in arms about this ruling on FaceBook are horrified by American prisons, by consecutive 99 year sentences, by the three-strikes rule, by death row, by George W Bush’s unprecedented record as the Texas governor with the most executions to his name, until he left the office, (152 with one commutation), and they’re some of the same people who cry over movies like “The Green Mile”.

I wonder though that anyone is surprised by this particular ruling, given that, since this appeal was heard in the European Court of Human Rights, there clearly already is a chance of review, and, therefore, by implication, release for all prisoners, because their right to be heard remains intact, and the highest court in the union can make a ruling that, effectively, requires the law to be changed in the UK. 

Ongoing reform of human rights legislation is a good thing... it has to be. 

Nobody is about to release anyone from gaol, certainly not anyone who has, until this ruling, been serving a whole life tariff. It’s preposterous to think that might be the case.

In my opinion, it is right that our attitudes towards and our treatment of our weakest and most damaged, and even of our most dangerous, should change with time. A Victorian standpoint would not suit the mores of the twenty-first century. Not much more than a hundred years ago the public would visit Bedlam to be entertained by the mentally ill as a kind of freak show. I think we can all agree that was an abomination never to be repeated.

Only fifty years ago we were hanging criminals for capital offences; I realise there are those who still bay for the blood of our most desperate offenders, and I doubt any of us could find it in our hearts to condemn the parent of a dead child for killing his murderer. Most of us consider murder by the state, which is, after all, what capital punishment amounts to, as a barbaric practice though, and I believe we are right to have replaced it with life imprisonment.

Is it wrong for us to consider the implications of imposing a whole-life tariff? Of course it isn’t. Does that mean that some of our most dangerous offenders won’t die in prison? Of course it doesn’t.

When all is said and done, prisons are still brutal places. We still incarcerate men and women for long periods of time. We feed them and give them basic medical care, but they continue to live sedentary, high stress existences. They are incarcerated, as they should be. They are paying a price, as is only right.

I am not going to excuse a single one of the eighty-five thousand men and women currently serving sentences in UK prisons, but I will say this: The average age at which a man in prison in the UK dies of natural causes is 56, and the average age at which a woman in prison in the UK dies of natural causes is 47. 

For contrast, the most common age at death for a man in England and Wales in 2010 was 85 and for a woman it was 89.

Of course, I’m aware that I’m not quite comparing like with like, because those numbers don’t exist. From one study I read, however, it is clear that an incarcerated man between the ages of 15 and 44 is twice as likely to die as a man of the same age in the general population, and six times more likely to commit suicide.

By the way, for anyone who thinks that capital punishment and whole life sentences offer a deterrent to serious crime, the prison population in the UK represents .137% of the general population. In the USA, that figure rises to .743%. That’s right, there are more than five times as many Americans in gaol per head of population as there are per head of population in the UK. 

And that’s how making better lives for everyone is supposed to work.

Human rights are important, and, if the UK is the most compassionate nation on Earth that’s something to be proud of. That compassion has to be spread wide and evenly, however. We must feel compassion for victims of crime before we compassionately lock up the perpetrators. Human rights are the mechanism, but, perhaps balance is the key.


  1. I'm with you, Nik. A review of a sentence does not mean an automatic release from prison. But we have to allow that decades of incarceration might make someone less of a threat. I'd rather err on the side of humanity here, but I doubt if any of these men will ever be released, review or not.

    1. Thanks, Reb,

      I doubt they will be either, and I don't suppose that was ever the intention of the Court of Human Rights.

      My problem is with the whole knee-jerk reaction thing. I think it's about time we all stopped and thought for a moment before we railed on these subjects, and that includes bloody David Cameron... and... for that matter... me. Smiles.

  2. The only justification for law is that it is better to group together to solve things together than have each person sort out their own issues with whoever decides to assist them (or against those who oppose them).

    So the best sentence for a crime is one that turns the criminal from an individual fighting against society to someone who benefits from society.

    Prison should be the minimal possible restraint: anyone who can be rehabilitated should be; anyone who has not been rehabilitated yet should only be there until they are; only those who cannot be rehabilitated should live out their lives in prison, and that failure to rehabilitate them is a call to work harder not a judgement on them.

    The causes of crime are complex social issues. We should solve them by building better societies not bigger prisons.

    1. I can't believe it took me a thousand words to say what you put so succinctly in half a dozen sentences.


    2. I like to think I have my moments.

  3. well said Mr. Higgins! I've never been down with the whole "lock them up so I don't have to think about them" approach to incarceration, more so if they leave without having learned what they need to prevent a swift return, let alone any return to jail.

    can't help but feel this is symptomatic of that whole ongoing disconnection problem society seems to have. I imagine after spending 6 months behind bars, these people wouldn't be so quick to subject others to something they've actually experienced.

    then, of course, there was this ...

  4. A British police officer who had worked to put away some of the most terrible criminals in the UK once summed it up to me like this:

    "You have a choice of two systems. System one: it is better that a hundred guilty men go free than a single innocent man lose his life.

    System two: It is better that a hundred innocent men die than a single guilty man go free."

    This man, who had seen things most of us have only had nightmares about, believed strongly that justice represented the first system. He was also against capital punishment. Why? Because he knew of cases where the courts convicted innocent men of horrific crimes - most later repealed - even when the police were adamant that the men in question should go free. True, you can't give someone back the ten years they spent locked up for a crime they didn't commit, but at least you can let them go free. You can't bring a man back from the dead after executing him.

    Oh, and the scene from The Green Mile when the electrocution goes wrong? That happens, and it is a truly horrific way to die. At least one victim of a malfunctioning chair was later found to be innocent of the crimes he died for. His family will never see justice for his murder, now will they?