Channel 4 News gains exclusive access to Britain’s only fully therapeutic prison that is rehabilitating some of the UK’s most dangerous offenders.
“Hello, I’m Adam. I’m serving life for murder. I killed my daughter.”
I wasn’t expecting that, writes Home Affairs Producer Ginny Sandringham. I was prepared for “I killed somebody”, or “I killed another gang member”, or “I killed my best mate because he was sleeping with my wife”, even. But this was something different. For the next few minutes I couldn’t think about anything else. His words echoed round my head as he carried on talking, telling me how much time he’d already served (eight years) and how much of his tariff he still had to serve (seven years).
“But the thing is”, he said, “I’m having to come to terms with what I’ve done because I have to talk about it every day with the guys here. I have to talk about my feelings and re-live the events leading up to the moment it happened.
“It’s what I signed up for. I knew the only way I was going to get through this was to come to Grendon (prison) and try and turn my life around by facing my demons.”
I know I’m going to go back to a very hostile environment but I know how to handle that Leo
“How far do you have to go?” someone asked, referring to the depths he was expected to go to inside himself to explore his actions. “Right up to my daughter’s last breath”, he answered without hesitation, involuntarily holding his hands out in a strangling gesture.
His daughter was about to turn four when he killed her.
Concerns that Britain’s prison system is deteriorating have grown in recent weeks with the official watchdog warning of “deplorable” conditions and campaign groups reporting an increase in inmate suicides.
The number of prison officers has fallen by 30 per cent in three years, according to research by the Howard League for Penal Reform, and the Ministry of Justice is trying to recruit ex-prison officers to plug the gaps. Even the prison service itself admits that this could impact on the rehabilitation of prisoners.
Channel 4 News has been given exclusive access to Grendon Prison, a jail with a unique approach to rehabilitating some of the most dangerous offenders in the country.
“Adam” (names have been changed), a skilled hospital technician by profession, is an inmate at Grendon – a place where murderers, rapists, armed robbers and arsonists, among others, ask to come to try to face up to the crimes they’ve committed.
The 212 strong male category B jail remains Britain’s only completely therapeutic prison community. Prisoners enjoy a degree of informality, they pride themselves on running democratic wings and police themselves. If there’s a problem with someone they bring it to a meeting and discuss it.
They’re actively encouraged to challenge and report each other’s behaviour, all part of the gruelling process of breaking down the criminal values many of them have lived most of their lives by.
Channel 4 News had been invited in by the charity Friends of Grendon to meet some of the prisoners and hear their stories. In this particular room on C wing was Eddie, a former gang member from Birmingham, who is in for murder.
“All I had ever known was how to be part of a gang”, he said. “It was normal for me to have a gun in my hand. It was normal to be violent. When I got sent to prison my mates were already there.
“Coming here is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. You’re asked to talk about your feelings – something you never do in a gang. You’ve got to accept people who are different and you have to control your anger. If you’re violent you’re out. It’s the complete opposite of being in a gang.”
This is the story that most of the inmates tell. The decision to come to Grendon is not an easy one.
To us on the outside it seems a no-brainer: a high security jail surrounded by violent and desperate men or a prison where violence isn’t tolerated, you can wear your own clothes and take part in therapy? But we haven’t lived the lives they have.
‘Grendon helped me survive’
Home Affairs Correspondent Simon Israel interviewed an ex-Grendon inmate and former armed robber, Tom Carrigan in 2010 (see below). He is now running award winning projects that involve setting up play areas for children in Halabja.
“Psychotherapy is anything but an easy ride. It’s one of the most terrifying things that anybody can face,” he said at the time. “It worked for me because I saw and felt my life slipping away behind bars.
“Grendon helped me survive. It helps me today to survive.”
Most of the men we met had been abused as children, subjected to violence and exposed to alcohol and drug misuse by their teens. Crime was as much a way of life for them as popping out to the shops is for us. Having to peel off their hard shell and expose their weaknesses under the critical gaze of their peers was painfully hard – too much even for one of the inmates.
Leo, a 30-year-old serving life for murdering his partner had asked to be transferred back to high security Long Lartin after five months at Grendon.
“I’m not ready for therapy” he said. “This has been a really positive experience but I’m not ready yet. I’ve created enough victims already. If I keep having therapy there will be a lot more and I don’t want that to happen.
If someone stays at Grendon for at least two years they are significantly less likely to re-offend on release David Wilson
“I know I’m going to go back to a very hostile environment but I know how to handle that.”
Leo, I found out later, had spent time at 11 different children’s homes. His mum had him when she was 13 and he had been exposed to heroin aged nine. His life had been dictated by drugs.
By this point we were sitting in a circle in one of Grendon’s meeting rooms. Grendon’s governor, Jamie Bennett, had also joined us.
A young man spoke up. I had met him earlier at lunch. Like Leo he had only been at Grendon for five months but he’d told me he was serious about staying; “for my family and so I can work with young people like me when I get out”.
His name was Danny and after he’d described his crime I realised he’d committed one of Britain’s most notorious knife murders of the last 20 years.
“Before we finish,” he said, “I just want to say that Leo and I came here at the same time and I think he’s done really well and I’m gutted that he wants to go but I’ve told him that he’d be welcomed if he wants to come back.”
Leo nods in appreciation and says that, yes, he’d like to come back at some point, when he’s ready.
Grendon, a jail built in the 1960s, is set under a huge open sky in the heart of middle England, near Aylesbury, in Buckinghamshire. The structure is not suited to a prison with long thin corridors and low ceilings, but practically every wall is hung with paintings, a result of the work of the resident art therapist and a constant reminder of what the prison’s focus is.
Patron of the Friends of Grendon and criminologist David Wilson told Channel 4 News: “It’s not what the prison looks like, it’s what goes on inside it that matters. Research shows that time in therapy is related to successfully stopping offending. If someone stays at Grendon for at least two years they are significantly less likely to re-offend on release.
“Many prisoners stay for much longer”, he adds, “often turning down the opportunity for parole in the process”.
So what next for Adam? A man who killed his own child in revenge for his wife’s infidelity?
“I’m going to be taking part in psycho-drama soon”, he tells me, “which is where we act out the crime with the other inmates. I’ll have to go over the night I killed my daughter in detail, not only from my perspective but from my wife and daughter’s.”
He looks absolutely terrified at the prospect.
At the end of his trial the judge told Adam: “You will have to live with what you did for the rest of your life.”
But by coming to Grendon it’s even harder than that. He has to re-live it every day.
(All names have been changed)