Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Hindley Shows That Prison Works

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Hindley Shows That Prison Works

Article excerpt

Thirty-two years in jail have reformed the most hated woman in Britain. Yet politicians wary of public opinion won't allow her out, writes Peter Stanford

Myra Hindley has been in prison for 32 years. For many she is utterly beyond redemption. If politicians of all shades, the public and the tabloid newspapers have their way, she will stay behind bars until she dies.

Even those too young to remember the full horror of the revelation in 1966 of the crimes against children committed by Hindley and her lover Ian Brady on the Moors above Manchester argue passionately that she deserves a literal life sentence. Though her trial judge said in sending her to prison that he believed she could be reformed - a sentiment repeated recently by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham - such opinions are the preserve of a tiny minority, mainly in the judiciary, a throw-back to a more liberal and enlightened approach to crime and punishment.

Today prison is regarded by the same constituency that demands eternal damnation for Hindley as simply being a question of retribution. The idea that a jail sentence can reform, let alone redeem, any individual is dismissed as pious nonsense preached by out-of-touch old buffers on the bench.

Thanks to the remorseless press interest in her, Hindley has become the dark side of the cult celebrity, with everyone feeling they know all about her, her continuing callousness and scheming. Yet those who visit her - and I have on several occasions - find this caricature the opposite of the truth about the intelligent, articulate and remorseful woman who sits opposite us.

To dare to suggest that Hindley is changed is immediately to face abuse an d derision, as Lord Longford and David Astor (the former Observer editor and proprietor) have found to their cost. The Legal Aid Board was nowhere near as bold this week. Yet merely by suggesting that Hindley's current legal challenge to her continued imprisonment is worth examining in court, and therefore worth funding, the board has fallen foul of the lynch mob.

The Legal Aid Board recognised that after three decades Hindley's case is now about something bigger than her individual fate. It is about how politicians, cravenly seeking votes, have allowed the caprices of public opinion to enter the heart of the judicial system.

Hindley's court battle has brought this disturbing trend into clear focus for anyone with eyes to see it, but such is the hatred her very name can still conjure up that it has been overlooked as if hers is somehow a case unlike any other and therefore subject to a whole different system of justice. No such alternative channel exists in British law.

Painful as it may be for many to accept, 56-year-old Hindley has a strong case to argue that she is yet another victim of a miscarriage of British justice. It is not that she denies her guilt - she has accepted it and publicly expressed her remorse on many occasions. Rather that in their dealings with her, successive home secretaries have overstepped the law of the land with impunity.

In December last year, she appealed to the Lord Chief Justice against arbitrary decisions within the Home Office to increase the "tariff" or amount of time she had been allotted as her life sentence. Leon Brittan, as home secretary, decided on a tariff of 30 years in 1985. He took advice from all of those who had worked with Hindley during her long imprisonment. They, the very people whose recommendations are crucial in every other case the Parole Board considers, reported - and still do - that she is a model prisoner, that she is one of the great successes of the rehabilitation-orientated prison system established in the 1960s. Given that there is little to be proud about in the current state of our prisons, we should, arguably, be celebrating that they have turned a child killer into a well-balanced member of society. …

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