Life inside Norwich prison's lifers' unit

I recently had the unique opportunity to visit Norwich prison's lifers' unit, home to some of the country's most notorious ageing prisoners (full story in today's EDP or online later). It was a thought provoking experience.

The wing most famously housed Ronnie Biggs before his release last month and is currently home to serial killer Donald Neilson. Other alumni include Nazi war criminal Anthony Sawoniuk. Although not all of the inmates are killers, the fact they are on life sentences means that among their number are men who are the closest thing you are likely to see to genuine evil.

However, my over-riding memory of this wing will not be any sense of menace from the inmates. The pervading atmosphere was of mundane routine and sadness.

I walked past Donald Neilson, the Black Panther, without even noticing him. He is now frail and in the latter stages of motor neurone disease. It was difficult to believe that he once killed five people.

Seeing Neilson in the flesh, now counting down the days to his death in lonely confinement, I could only feel pity for a man who is widely, and perhaps rightly, regarded as a monster. Of course he is getting what he deserves and his victims' relatives are no doubt happy to see him rot in jail. But I could not help but wonder what could have possibly driven him to commit such terrible crimes.

Having now covered crime for most of my career, I no longer believe that anybody is intrinsically evil. They may commit evil acts but those acts must be set into some kind of wider context. These people are, after all, still human - no matter how much we may wish otherwise.

This experience only served to reinforce that belief. That is not to say that we all have a dark side and are capable of succumbing to depravity, I do not believe that either. But to attempt to dehumanise them and ignore the causes of their behaviour, is to ignore the extremes that human beings are capable of.

Covering crime on a regular basis, it is easy to regard things in black and white and in terms of good and bad. It is never that clear cut.

Visiting this wing made me pause and reflect on the fact that even the worst criminals grow old and deteriorate. They are mortal.

Above all else, visiting the lifers' unit - the only one of its kind in Europe - provides a unique insight into wasted lives.

posted on 14 September 2009 10:37 byBen Kendall

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