Transcript from Radio Five Live Discussion
This is a transcript of the discussion about people who
write to prisoners, from BBC Radio Five Live's Simon Mayo show on 15th January 2004.
It was a live show, and the discussion occupied the first hour of the programme.
SM: Now, you may well have read in the papers this week of letters to the Soham murderer Ian Huntley. They were exchanged with women who contacted him after he was convicted. Not everyone who writes to an inmate is of course looking for a relationship, but what does make someone want to get in touch with a man or woman who's serving time for a serious crime? Be interesting to know your thoughts on that [gives out phone number]. Saira Ali Ahmed is the wife of Ali Charles Ahmed, formerly known as Charles Bronson. He's been in prison since he was convicted of armed robbery in 1975, hello Saira.
SA: Hi there, how you doing?
SM: I'm fine, thanks for joining us. Linda McKie is involved with a man who's serving time in a jail in California, they've never met face to face. Flash Wilson's in the studio with us here, writes to a man on death row, hello Flash.
SM: Just have to say that is the greatest name.
SM: And it's your real name?
FW: It is.
SM: Extraordinary parents! And what do you... I suppose there's no nickname, if you're called Flash then...
FW: No, that's pretty much it, yeah.
SM: We'll be talking to Dr James Stevens-Turner shortly, he runs an organisation which helps people write to inmates, and Professor Petruska Clarkson is a pyschologist, hello Petruska.
SM: Saira, can we start with you? People will...
SA: Can I just make something clear?
SA: I don't actually... we weren't penpals, and I didn't actually write to him just because he's a prisoner, I was in love before even I wrote to him for three years, and the reason I wrote to him is because I just wanted to get it out of my system, so I can actually get on with my real life, and that's how it started and we got engaged in three weeks. So I don't particularly have a habit of writing to prisoners.
SM: Sure. So explain what it was then Saira, that made you want to write.
SA: Well basically what happened is I saw his picture on the newspaper one day and I see people all the time everywhere, on the street, in a shop, everywhere! And there's something about that picture just stayed in my mind for a few days, few weeks, few months, and I realised that there's something more to it than that, and I realised after six months later that I actually started to have feelings for this guy, and I knew nothing about him, I mean he could have been married, or - I don't know, I knew nothing, in fact I didn't really know that he was serving life sentence, but that didn't stop me falling in love with him.
SM: Hmmm. So you had written to other prisoners before?
SA: No never... I think I would have met my husband even if he was outside.
SM: Why do you think that?
SA: I don't know, it's just something between us, I do believe that you have your soulmate, everybody has, and he just happened to be in prison.
SM: He was originally jailed 29 years ago for armed robbery, then his tarif was extended, numerous acts of criminal damage while he was in jail, 22 years in solitary, 8 rooftop protests, 120 different prisons, assaulted more than 20 prison officers, caused more than half a million pounds worth of damages...
SA: Yeah, but that's only one side. I mean you only care what he's done, but...
SM: Sure, give me the other side.
SA: Well he's been treated very unfairly over the years, and I had time obviously - we've been together for four years now - to look into it, and more and more I look into it I think oh my god, I've never heard or seen anybody treated so badly by the system and I'm not saying he is an angel either...
SM: Well over the years he has treated other people particularly badly.
SA: He has, yeah. But end of the day, people can change and he has changed, whether that's because of me and my daughter I don't know but obviously he has changed for last four years, I mean he hasn't done anything wrong and his appeal's coming up in first week of April...
SM: When you say he hasn't done anything wrong...
SA: He hasn't done anything wrong meaning he hasn't... all the things he did before, whether it's been for the prison officers provoking him or one way or another...
SM: But you think he's a changed man?
SA: He is a changed man.
SM: And is it you that's changed him, or is it...
SA: Well I don't wanna claim that, but he has got a wife and a daughter outside now, he has got something to look forward to, something positive that he has in his life. And being an Asian Muslim woman, he is my husband, he is my soulmate, and he is everything I've got now.
SM: Many people listening to this Saira will be saying to themselves, you can't really know him, not really.
SA: Well let me tell you something now. If you had done your homework, then you would have known that 95% of the Asian men and women in this country, I mean they go back home to get married, Pakistan Bangladesh or India, yeah, now whether its a love marriage or arranged marriage they don't bring their partners back here straightaway, on the next plane, the immigration procedures takes four to five years. I mean they still have a long-distance relationship, they don't know each other after four or five years later, I mean after even seven, eight years later they start living together as husband and wife, in between that time one partner goes back to England or America or whereever he or she is living, you know. At least I get to see my husband twice a month, you know, and what I'm trying to say is my relationship is not alienated. I come from that culture so I'm seeing my cousins and my aunties getting married abroad and living a life like that.
SM: So how often are you allowed to be alone together?
SA: Well I see him two hours.. two visits.. because it's such a long way we put two visits together and I go and see him for two days which is four hours a month.
SM: And you're completely on your own then?
SA: No, I take my daughter with me because she's very close to him and she is part of our life, and he's very close to her as well so... I mean I do have times on my own with him sometimes but you know.
SM: And how old's your daughter?
SA: She's thirteen, she will be thirteen this coming monday.
SM: Flash Wilson, tell us about the man that you write to and how that came about.
FW: I write to a guy on death row in Alabama, I started writing to him... basically I'd been interested in the idea after reading a website that's made of letters from someone who corresponded with a guy, actually in California, and I read about Lifelines, which is an association which puts you in touch with a prisoner, but they do it with support so that you get newsletters, you've got someone you can talk to if for example they try and... they think it's going to be a romantic relationship, because it's mainly about friendship and being there for someone who hasn't got anybody at the end of the day, somebody who needs someone to talk to and just say "I did this today, and what did you do?" and just have something to catch up on and something to do.
SM: So in your case, and I would imagine - I have absolutely no basis for this - my assumption is overwhelming that the majority of people who write to prisoners just do it out of some kind of concern and wanting to do their bit, so you're not interested in a relationship with this guy, you're just writing to help him along a bit.
FW: Absolutely! I mean I do other things like sponsoring children in the third world and stuff, and I'm interested in helping people in different circumstances.
SM: What kind of a man is he?
FW: Well the side he puts across to me, he's witty, he's funny, he's not at all religious which is a great relief to myself because I'm not either, and I was worried that he was going to start telling me that I should have faith in God...
SM: Well he might have been worried that that's what you were going to do!
FW: Exactly, and I know he's had a correspondence before with somebody that did that to him and he ended up stopping writing to them. So he comes across as a regular guy. I mean I know he's not, I know he has killed somebody - I'm not really going to go into the circumstances because it's not my case to talk about, it's his case - but he doesn't come across as an evil person, he comes across as someone who's quite shocked by some of the things that go on in prison and some of the other things people have done.
SM: And when you're writing to him are you trying to cheer him up, if you want to put it that way, are you trying to say this is what I'm doing and I'm thinking about you and I hope things work out for you - what is the message that you're trying to send to him?
FW: Basically, to start off with it's friendship so just to tell him about my day, what I've done, and ask him how he's doing, also if there's something for example I can't confide in a friend at home, because it will get all round my friends, I can tell him something and know it won't go anywhere. I can tell him something that my partner is bored to death of hearing and that I can't tell my other friends, you know. So I get something out of it in that way as well, a confidant.
SM: If you have any experience let us know, if you've ever written to anyone in prison tell about that and the letters that you got back [gives out email address and phone number].
[Political News and Travel follows]
SM: Why do people write to prisoners? Dr James Stevens-Turner has joined us, and your organisation is Bridging The Gap. James you particularly set out encouraging members of the public to write, what's your mission here?
JT: Well, you've got men who are shut up in their cells 23 hours a day. Yesterday I was in Feltham YOI, you've got 400 inmates there, only about 200 of them ever get visits while they're there. So what are they going to do with the rest of their time? They're going to go round the twist, half of them. By getting letters in to the inmates, to these different prisons, not only in this country but abroad, it helps to break up that monotony of being in prison.
SM: Is it mainly women writing to men?
JT: No, there's men writing to men, there's women writing to men, you know...
SM: But mainly?
JT: There's a lot... there's about two thirds women writing to men.
SM: What would you draw from that?
JT: Ah, what do I draw from that? Well, it's... perhaps the women have got more time to spare.
SM: What motivates people in general, is it just concern for someone who has got a few years to kill, what is it that motivates most people that you work with?
JT: Normally it's just curiosity. Now there has been some romantic things happen as well but most of it's curiosity.
SM: Curiosity to find out what?
JT: Oh, what they're doing inside, what motivated them to commit the crime they committed, all sorts of curiosities - what life is like inside.
SM: Does it ever lead to friendship, just straightforward friendship so that when the prisoner comes out they meet up, have a cup of tea, carry on the penpal relationship?
JT: Very often! I have people over in the States who actually write to death row inmates, and I have them just going over there to visit them.
SM: Flash Wilson, she writes to someone on death row, and it's just... how many times do you write Flash?
FW: About once a month because that's how long it takes to get my letter to him and you know, verified by the prison and then him to reply and get his letter out to me. So that makes a natural gap for how frequently to write.
SM: Would you think about going over?
FW: I wouldn't, no. I think that... it might make things more difficult once I've met somebody... I mean ultimately this is someone who's going to be executed, and that will be very difficult but it could be many years away. So I want to be his friend and give him somebody to write to, but at the end of it I'm going to have to let him go.
SM: Professor Petruska Clarkson, psychologist, who I introduced you to at the beginning of the programme - people who form relationships with men on the inside, Petruska, do they stand much of a chance of lasting long-term?
PC: You're talking about romantic attachment... The point is that when we talk about lasting long-term and we think that one marriage in two in Britain will not last long-term, I don't know if the proportion is going to be any higher or lower. That is... you know... it is extremely unlikely.
SM: Sure. But many people listening will be thinking, but it's just not possible to know someone like that, I know Saira came up with her answer but if you're just writing to somebody - and if you have met them in prison it's just very forced, formal circumstances aren't they? Very strange to strike up a relationship with someone who's behind bars.
PC: Well I know some people think that, but clearly there are many of us who don't think that's strange. These men are - usually men, but also women of course - but they are isolated from human relationship. Human relationship is what every human being needs in order to have a purpose for living. Now most of society in many cases have turned away from these people. Therefore there will be a proportion of the population who want to reach out, with relationship, to these people. So I don't know if it depends on how well you know someone because as somebody who has spoken to thousands of people over three decades in partnerships, I know how very often men and women are lonely in their marriages. And they get lonelier and lonelier and they don't know the people that they are living with, and they certainly don't know the truth about the way they are living. So I think we must be very careful not to make a very artificial separation as if people in prison are different kinds of people from the way people are outside - no. We are all human beings, we all need relationships and some people have got spare love, and they want to reach out to people who others turn away from. So writing to prisoners, or supporting them by being in relationship with them, you don't need to know a person profoundly, as I say most marriages, people have very little idea about what really goes on in their partner's head, but somebody in my position - I know.
SM: James in Hitchin, hello James.
JH: Hi Ja... hi, sorry.
SM: No I'm Simon, you're James, doesn't matter, what did you want to say?
JH: I've been listening to this for quite a while now and there's a couple of points that I'd like to make, and I'd like the lady that's married to... the name's Bronson is it?
SM: Well he was Charles Bronson, he's now Ali Charles Ahmed and her name is Saira, and she's listening.
SA: Yes, I'm listening.
JH: I'd just like to ask, you said that you fell in love with him when you... actually before you met him, I'd like to ask now that you're married, what love is it compared to people outside that can actually walk around and do things together, what sort of love and where do you think...
SA: Well our love has grown lot more stronger, lot more deeper than when four years ago, when we first met. And I've been through a lot in my life and that makes me - what is the word I'm looking for - that makes me realise, that makes me stronger, that makes me the person I am today, to know what's right and what's wrong, and if this love was for real or not, and I've known all my life that I've been through a lot, I had very little love in my life, before my husband came in my life. So I mean I know I miss him being at home with us, but I know he will be in another few years' time.
JH: Right, because the other thing that I wanted to ask was - one of the things that I feel, women that write to men that are incarcerated, men that are in prison and have very unlikely - I don't know what his situation is but some men are very unlikely that they are going to get out, right...
SA: Well my husband's appeal is going to start first week of April so... that to quash his life sentence. So I'm talking about another three, two years, could be another one year, he could be out.
JH: Ok, two points really quickly that I'd like to make because I know there's other people waiting to speak, is that I feel that there's a form of control when women write to men and they go to see them as well, because they know that they can't get out, they can't do things that you know...
SA: Well I think you must have read it somewhere in the magazine or something, I totally disagree with you, I'll tell you why - because even though my husband doesn't live with me my husband is the man of the house, even though he doesn't live in the house! Every single little decision...
JH: Alright, and the second thing is that as far as... you're saying that he's changed, and you know him better than what - I don't know him.
SA: Yeah, he has changed
JH: What I'm trying to say is that you're saying that he's changed and everything, but going out into society after being incarcerated for so many years is far different, it's going to be difficult, you know, than being incarcerated.
SA: Well I'll tell you something that might shock you actually, my husband's got only one last dream left, both of us together. When he comes out he just wants to stay here for another five or six months, then he wants to get out of this country and go to Bangladesh with me and my daughter. Now, lot of people find it shocking, people say oh my god, I mean how can this guy gonna survive in third world country like Bangladesh, that is people who don't even know about Bangladesh, I say to them, I mean he hasn't actually lived his life in a luxury for last thirty years has he? He just wants.. he wants to..
JH: That's why I'm saying to you that rehabilitation after thirty years, he's got no idea how it's gonna be!
SA: I do. I do very well.
JH: You do? Because I don't think you do!
SA: Oh yes I do!
SM: James, James thank you. I have to say Saira - we'll broadcast more of these in a moment - all the texts and emails aren't particularly flattering - this one from Matt: These women are clearly unhinged and attracted to danger; Grant says no wonder he was treated badly, he's an animal; Chris says these people clearly need help, they are as disturbing as the inmates that they are obsessed with.
SA: Well they don't have a clue what they are talking about so they should just keep quiet, that's what I would say. I mean sometimes, when I get angry, my husband would turn round and say Bloody hell, you are more dangerous than I am! That's obviously joking way, but I mean we are all dangerous, we all dangerous, I mean you tell me when something goes wrong in the house, for example me and my brother we are arguing and arguments get out of hand, I might pick up something and hit him in the head! So I'm dangerous.
SM: But when you say - Saira when you say things like we are all dangerous, yes but your husband has been in 120 different prisons and assaulted more than 20 prison officers, jailed for armed robbery. We are not all violent like that.
SA: No, but I'm sure you've done something in your life that...
SM: Not like that I haven't!
SA: Yeah but listen, nobody sits on their backside and decides, hmmm let me decide which prison officer I'm going to take hostage today, let me decide which one I'm going to hit in the head, nobody does something for no reason. He has been provoked, beaten up like, like - I can't even find the words to describe it.
SM: I think we understand what you say.
SA: And you must have seen the pictures in the newspapers in the past, and if you haven't then, you know it's all going to come out in his appeal.
SM: If you want to contribute [gives out contact details]
[News and Sport follows]
SM: On five live this afternoon we're trying to find out a little bit more about folk who write to prisoners. Saira Ali Ahmed is with us, the wife of Ali Charles Ahmed, formerly known as Charles Bronson, Linda McKie we're hoping to speak to, she's involved with a man serving time in a jail in California, they've never met face to face. Flash Wilson writes to a man on death row, Dr James Stevens-Turner runs Bridging The Gap, an organisation which helps people write to inmates and Professor Petruska Clarkson is a psychologist. Let me just start with this email which has come in during the news from John Collier in Liverpool who has the window to watch: I'm a voluntary associate, a VA, with the New Bridge which was founded by the late Lord Longford. We correspond and visit with prisoners across the UK and are supported and organised within local groups. These groups meet regularly and provide ongoing support and guidance to all our VAs, Voluntary Associates. We all undergo initial training and ongoing training, we also provide aftercare support where it's appropriate. The work and other training programmes we have undertaken both inside and outside prison over many years have I'm sure ensured that many men and women have been empowered to change their former lifestyles and lead positive and crime-free lives after release. Yes I have friends from prison who have never reoffended and I value their friendships greatly. John - James, beg your pardon, do you think that motivates some of the people who are involved in your organisation, where John here ensuring that men and women come out of prison and lead positive and crime-free lives. Is that really the prime motivation of most?
JT: Well with some people yes it is. We also do training schemes and training courses to help the people to prepare themselves for release from prison. The lacking thing in our system at the moment is that there's not much done for a person who is being released. Only yesterday as I say I was in Feltham, I saw one lad walk up the road, with a bag over his shoulder, plastic bag over his shoulder, blazoned across the back was HM Prison Service, he's just been released. And he's got all his worldly goods in a plastic bag! He's labelled as he walks out the gates. What help is that to the person as he's starting his life of freedom again? Nothing.
SM: So this process of writing to prisoners is part of the whole rehabilitation process as far as you see it?
JT: As far as I see it, yeah. We try to encourage people who write, to encourage people they write to, to help them on the path on their release.
SM: Is there a right way of writing these letters, I mean Flash was talking earlier, it was before you got here I think, that she's reassured that the person she writes to isn't religious because she isn't, and whatever, she didn't want to be preached at and he didn't want to be preached at so that's fine. But I would imagine some people might want to do that? Do you say don't preach, do preach...
JT: We do issue guidelines, on our website we have printed guidelines as well which we send out to people who want them. Basically we just say be yourself, when you write to a person it's no good pretending to be somebody else because it will come out eventually in your letters. Be yourself. If you are a religious person and you want to write to somebody, we actually try to marry you up with someone inside who is religious and wants letters. If you're non-religious, or you don't want to talk about religious stuff, then fair enough, we marry you up with somebody who is non-religious. We're there to help anybody, in prison, who wants a letter.
SM: And in general, people who want to write, they will find someone to write back to them?
JT: They will do, yeah.
SM: Because presumably to start with you just say dear whoever do you, or do you actually find...
JT: No we try to marry them up. So we try to match up people... we get requests, 20 to 30 requests a day, over our website. And we have a full-time co-ordinator who tries to match up people who are requesting people to write to and people inside who are requesting, so what they might turn round and say, well I don't want to write to a paedophile, and things like this, so we have to make sure that we match up people who haven't committed the crimes they don't want them to write to. It's not so easy in this country, because we are protected by the data protection act, but if they want to write to someone on death row or anywhere in the United States, you can actually go on the web and you can find out who's in prison there and what sort of crimes they've committed.
SM: So Flash, when you started writing to.. to.. what's his name?
SM: So when you started writing to Melvin did you know what he'd done?
FW: I didn't - well, I did and I didn't. I was given his name by my co-ordinator, and his address, and invited to send an opening letter, introduce myself and say hi, and all I knew at that stage was that he'd asked for a penfriend, and so had I. But being curious I went and looked online, so I'd read all the details of his case from his lawyer's website, and from news cuttings, and things like that. I didn't tell him that I'd done that, but - I waited for him to choose to tell me about his case, if he wanted to. And what he's told me has been exactly the same as what I've read, which is quite reassuring! So I didn't have any choice of...
SM: Does he say he's guilty?
FW: He's guilty of what he did, it's an interesting case because he was convicted by a jury who said he shouldn't be sentenced to death, and the judge said he should, and overrode it. So I think he's appealing... against the actual sentence rather than whether he's guilty or not.
SM: Does anyone else write to him?
FW: No, he's written to somebody in the past as I said, she was very religious and although he wanted the friendship of somebody to write to, he didn't really appreciate her saying he should repent or whatever else, and he stopped writing to her. That'd be from people who'd seen his name on various websites as James said, just listing everyone on death row in the United States, there's lots of websites - and this was actually a request he made to Lifelines, knowing that they're an organisation that does pair you up, rather than someone who's found your name randomly and chosen to write to you.
SM: Saira, do many people write to your husband, apart from you?
SA: Yeah, lot of people. Lot of women obviously, not that way, there's lot of men, young students, all sorts of people, just to support him, and I think that's great.
SM: So in general the people who write to him are supportive?
SA: Very supportive, yeah. I mean I know some of them because they sometimes contact me through my husband, just to support me as well, and that means a lot to me.
SM: Let me bring you some more of these emails, George on this one says this whole idea makes me feel sick, he says, especially writing to the likes of Ian Huntley and so on, I can only imagine that these people are the sort who find it impossible to pass a car crash without looking. It's plain morbid curiosity. How about writing to the families affected of these violent criminals? You were sort of shaking your head James.
JT: Well it's just the fact that on our website we've had about 30 or 40 people requested Ian Huntley's and asking where he is.
SM: Why do you think that would be?
JT: Well, because they want to write to him!
SM: And why do you think they want to write to him?
JT: Some of them - again it could be just morbid curiosity, some...
SM: So there's an element to that that you'd agree with?
JT: There sometimes is an element of that, yes. Sometimes they want to slag him off or have a good go at him, and some people just want to get like I was saying earlier on, just want to support him.
SM: Petruska, just on that particular aspect, would you agree that some people are doing this out of morbid curiosity, if Ian Huntley's getting all these letters, does that strike you as a psychologist...
PC: Oh I think it's a vast, vast over-simplification. We need to separate out functions of evaluating evidence, which is done by our courts, and there are sentences and punishments dished out to people which they may or may not accept, but they have to suffer it through. It is not for everybody to necessarily take the judge's side. The question is of reaching out to the person in a human relationship. You must remember that most people who end up in prison are there because of their earlier relationships, either were absent or very destructive. And it's only through human relationship that people can rejoin the human race. So yes there are the judges and the people who want to condemn, that's fine, and then there are the people who maybe want to understand, because it's easy to call it morbid curiosity. Yeah, surely there's a quality of that in everybody otherwise we'd never pick up a newspaper. But there is wanting to understand it and Ian Brady for example is a very, very interesting person. He has articulated in his book, and I've also read Bronson's book, very interesting aspects of what it means to be human beings, and particularly what it means to have a different value system from the majority one. Now, I'm not saying...
SM: Sorry, a different value system from the majority...
SM: What do you mean by that?
PC: Like Ian Brady's book, he sets out his understanding, his - if you like - his philosophy which I may personally find morally repugnant, but as a student of human nature I think that my, if you like, my curiosity, you can call it morbid but I would also call it highly ethical, that I want to understand more, because we are on a continuum, and the job of understanding, or the job of offering relationship to somebody, when they've done something wrong or not, it's just a human desire, that we...
SM: But he clearly did do something wrong, and he's a cruel sadistic convicted murderer.
PC: And the judge has seen to that. And now...
SA: Simon, can I just say something?
SA: Yeah. I just wanted to say that when I first saw my husband's picture on the newspaper, I don't think I would have fell for somebody if that person was a child killer or a rapist or a murderer, I don't think I can ever fall for somebody like that. And when I was reading the article for the first time I knew why he went to prison for. So my husband hasn't killed anybody, he's not a murderer, he's not a women basher, he's none of that. So I don't think if he was any of that, I don't think I could ever fall for somebody like that.
SM: And that would make the difference as far as you're concerned?
SA: Yeah I mean I knew, I knew in that small short article, I could see why he went to prison and at the same time it was written, the way he's been treated badly, so I could see both sides.
SM: Most of these texts and emails are relating to you Saira, but this one says: This is a message to Saira, lady you are so deluded. I am an Asian Muslim man who is cringing at your foolishness. Get real Saira and take yourself and your daughter as far away from this man as possible.
SA: [laughs] Well I would say to him that he doesn't know anything about me, and my husband actually has become Muslim, even though my.. even though religion has nothing to do with my relationship. I mean religion is something, I mean I'm a Muslim person but I practise the religion of humanity first, that's most important to me first. I mean these people don't even know me, and they're making comments like that, they don't even know my husband.
SM: [gives out text number] Jo has a couple here ahead of the travel.
Jo: This one's from Joe who says these women clearly need to be locked up in prison to undergo rehabilitation like their dodgy husbands, that's what they clearly need, brought to reality; and another one of you says, no name on this, are we forgetting all these people are in prison for a reason so loneliness is part of the punishment; but having said that this is another point of view from Andy in Sheffield, thanks Andy, you say: I have a partner who works as a psychologist with offenders who have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act, I can't help but feel that there may be people listening to your programme who won't agree with what your guests do or think that they are - for want of a better word - nuts, but my experience of listening to my partner talk about the people she helps leaves me with one clear feeling, the prisoners she helps seem to be very aware that people who are paid to be there and they see them on a professional level, they have no choice, but they have to be there, so in other words what you're saying is that people who do what your guests do, do a great thing - they offer human friendship and engagement, equal level in a relationship with people who have no other rights; Andy goes on to say they the prisoners are therefore able to engage briefly with a human on an equal level and that should surely be encouraged.
SM: [gives out email address]
[Travel News and Football Trailer follows]
SM: Before we go any further, and Andy in Oxford I'll be with you in just a second, Petruska here wants to pick up on a point that came up in the last email about loneliness being part of the punishment.
PC: Yes, it is well known throughout history and throughout all countries that solitary confinement is by most human beings experienced as more terrible than capital punishment. If you want to destroy human beings, you deprive them of human relationship. And that particularly has been done in the case of Bronson. From what I've understood and from what I've read, I would have hoped that some people who have relationship skills could have gotten to that man and prevented the brutalisation that has happened there.
SM: It's 22 years wasn't it Saira, he was in solitary?
SA: That's right, yeah.
PC: And there's not an attempt to understand them, I want to differentiate between whether we...
SM: He's in there as a punishment.
PC: Yeah, but whether we put people in prison to punish them and destroy them...
SM: But once he was in prison he was attacking prison warders and causing half a million pounds' worth of damage, so once he was in prison there was obviously need for a further punishment.
SA: Yeah, but you keep on saying that, but you never look into it, why he did it, I mean he used to get people peeing on his food, and messing about with his mum's letters or, or you know, things like that, how would you feel? You never put yourself, not you personally but you know, you've got to put yourself in that person's position and deeply try to understand why he did it.
JT: Well when you're in the prison system, very often things go on, which there's only one way to sort it and that's explode. I have seen, when I have been in prisons myself, men under Rule 43 - these are protected like Huntley will go on to - they're supposed to be protected on 43 but the officer has opened the gates up and gone for a smoke.
SM: Knowing exactly what he was doing?
JT: Knowing exactly what he's doing. I've also seen where one particular guy was held by his feet and dragged from the fourth floor down to the first floor, and he hit every step on the way down.
SM: Andy in Oxford.
SM: Yes Andy.
AO: I have experience of prison unfortunately and generally speaking, people writing to people, it's a very good thing, it keeps people linked with the outside world and what's going on, and it's very helpful, but obviously there is a worry, and I've seen it from the prison side obviously, that people will be exploited in one direction or in both directions, I mean I've seen people who've written to people basically, formed relationships, to try to enhance their parole prospects, and that worries me with the lady that's on your panel, and also in the other direction I've had experience of people who've actually exploited prisoners, who've come out, they've actually used the confidence they've won in relationships and exploited prisoners for their own gain.
SM: It's an interesting point that you make Andy, when you say you have experience of prison I imagine you're saying as a prisoner?
SM: And did people write to you?
AO: Yes they did, yeah.
SM: And did you write back?
SM: And was it in general beneficial, it sounds as though you are couching your general enthusiasm with a few words of caution.
AO: Yes I think there is room for caution, I think the example of your other lady, Flash, is quite a good example where there's a safe middle ground if you like, and that's probably the best arrangement for non-family and non-friends based communication, because there's safety for both parties really, and as I say it is the situation because a lot of people in Britain are a bit nefarious, to say the least, that can be exploited. But it can be exploited the other way too, by the actual people writing from the outside, and I've experienced people doing that to people as well.
SM: James, let me talk to James about that, because you run this organisation so do you try to wheedle out those who are trying to exploit the system either whether it be people on the outside writing in or those on the inside as Andy is saying who might just want to improve their parole prospects?
JT: Well, there is that possibility but we lay down guidelines for people who write to inmates, and one of the things that we say is just be careful on what the inmate's... coming from the inmate's side of things, what the inmate asks for. If he's asking for money, he or she, be careful because it may not be for what they may say it's for. It may end up buying wacky baccy or as the case may be. We always recommend that if you're going to send some money in, send the minimum amount in. Yes you will also get people outside who want to exploit the inmate, there are websites set up for inmates' names and addresses. Some of the inmates have to pay for those to go on the sites. That is exploiting the inmate.
SM: Andy thanks for the call. Just, James while we're talking to you a text here from someone who says I did write to a man in prison for two years but when it was time to release he came after me and made my life hell. I had never wanted a love affair but he did, he attacked my husband and now he's back in prison and I dread him getting out again. I won't read out the name and area, but...
JT: Well we actually provide a Post Office box so if anyone wants to use our Post Office box, they can... they use our Post Office box, we then redirect the letter...
SM: So there's no way of knowing...
JT: There's no way of knowing, especially in this country, but we also use it for the States as well.
SM: Petruska, you had your hand up.
PC: Yes, I just want to very much speak in support of people not doing this off their own bat, but associating like with an organisation like James's, where there is a lot of experience and a lot of understanding of the dynamics, and as a group they've already come across the different kinds of things that can go wrong. And not to expose yourself to danger.
SM: And you were nodding as well Flash, I think you wanted to come in earlier on?
FW: Yeah, I mean I would completely agree about having the support there; the point I was going to come in on was the loneliness especially which people think that the prisoner should be lonely according to those messages, but the punishment is to go to prison, that's why they're being punished and in the case of the guy I write to he's going to be executed, that's the punishment. But at that point the family can fall away from them, you know, they'll cut them off or whatever, and then they really don't have the friends that they used to have, they don't have anybody.
SM: Peter Jarvis would like the name of your website, James.
SM: btguk.org. Ok. James Stephens-Turner, thank you; Professor Petruska Clarkson, thank you; Saira Ali Ahmed, thank you very much indeed for your thoughts, and Flash, thank you for coming in.
[Show moves on to another topic]
This page last updated: 19 July 2004
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