After a lifetime in Broadmoor, the writer Janet Cresswell is free at last

Woman whose case inspired 'IoS' campaign tells of her joy at release - and her enduring anger
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Indy Lifestyle Online

For the first time in more than 30 years, Janet Cresswell spent Christmas at home with her daughter, grandchildren and their pet rabbit.

It was a happy occasion that many families take for granted. Not Ms Cresswell. The 75-year-old grandmother and award-winning writer had feared she would end up dying among murderers and rapists in Broadmoor, the psychiatric hospital in Berkshire where she spent a third of her life.

Now she is enjoying her liberty after officials released her in response to protests from friends, mental health charities and this newspaper. In an exclusive interview, Ms Cresswell has spoken for the first time of her joy at being free, her traumatic time as a psychiatric patient and her anger at her treatment.

"I'm immensely grateful to my daughter and son-in-law for their support and I've been cuddling the rabbit a lot. It's just such bliss not to be institutionalised any more. But it must have cost the NHS more than half a million pounds for me to be incarcerated. It's madness."

Her case was the catalyst for The Independent on Sunday's mental health campaign for better rights for people in psychiatric hospitals. So successful was our lobbying that ministers were forced to backdown over draconian reforms of mental health laws.

Ms Cresswell's crime was to slash her psychiatrist's buttocks with a vegetable knife, a serious offence but not one that should attract such a long sentence. However, she became effectively a political prisoner because she refused to admit to being "mad".

At one point a panel of experts refused to release her on the grounds she had been isolated for so long that she would not be able to cope in the outside world.

Britain's secure psychiatric hospitals are often portrayed in the media as up-market holiday camps. The reality is very different, says Ms Cresswell, who spent 27 years in Broadmoor. The regime was more relaxed at the start of her incarceration in the summer of 1976, but towards the end the daily searches and petty restrictions on what little freedom the patients had became intolerable. Even speaking to her family on the telephone became difficult.

Her experiences, as well as those of the vulnerable women she was locked up with for so many years, inspired her book The Ox Bow. This paints a bleak picture of how female patients were subjected to demeaning room searches, of drugged-up patients developing serious health problems as a side effect of their medication and of widespread self-harm among the female population, who are still kept on draughty Victorian wards.

In one extract, Ms Cresswell details the case of "Nan", who was sent to Broadmoor after a suicide attempt.

"Her mother died of an asthmatic attack trying to save her daughter, in the course of which fat from a frying pan was spilt and Nan was taken to hospital to be treated for burns.

"There, she threw herself out of a top-floor window fracturing her legs and skull. Her trial was held without her knowledge; she had been committed as 'Unfit to plead'. When brought to Broadmoor she did not understood where she was and a nurse told her: 'You murdered your mother, didn't you.' That alone was a trauma. 'I loved my mother,' she said to me, 'I couldn't have murdered her.'"

Many of the female patients at the Berkshire psychiatric hospital are victims of childhood abuse. Many relieve their trauma through serious self-harm, by cutting themselves to the bone. The majority of these vulnerable women are not a danger to others, only to themselves, which means they come second to the male patients who are housed on well-equipped, modern wards for reasons of security.

The harsh regime at Broadmoor had a devastating impact on these women and Ms Cresswell finds it hard to forget their distress.

"What I think about most are the women who are left behind. My thoughts are with them. The self-harm at Broadmoor was appalling but it was caused by the imposition of harsher rules.

"At the end I was the oldest woman there. A lot of my friends had been moved on or sadly had died but they should have cleared out everyone years ago."

To keep herself sane, Ms Cresswell wrote letters to friends and family and a play, The One-Sided Wall, which was performed at the Bush Theatre in London. She was also awarded a special prize for an essay on Bedlam, the notorious lunatic asylum.

But this did not compensate for the fact that she was barred from attending her own mother's funeral and her daughter's wedding.

"It was upsetting because I was not allowed to go to the wedding although it would have been a bit embarrassing for her if this party from Broadmoor had turned up.

"I also missed my mother's funeral, which was hard. She is buried in Devon but I've not had the chance to visit her grave."

This newspaper campaigned for Ms Cresswell to be removed from Broadmoor as part of our mental health campaign, which highlighted the plight of patients who should have been released but were languishing in the system.

Ms Cresswell was finally allowed out of the gates of Broadmoor in 2003. But her time as just another number in the system did not end there. Instead, the grandmother was sent to Thornford Park, a regional secure unit, until her eventual release last November.

There are still conditions attached to her freedom and she is still being monitored by the authorities, which makes her angry.

After so long deprived of her liberty Ms Cresswell is now content just to relish the experience of waking up in her own bed, visiting old friends and discovering the fun of playing computer games with her grandchildren.

"I've not really got itchy feet and I don't have the resources to go to places like Mauritius or Hong Kong, but there are friends I want to see," she says. "It's just nice and cosy here."

Mental Health Campaign

What needs to be done:

The 'IoS' has campaigned for significant changes to existing services and to the Mental Health Bill. We are calling for:

* The right to the most appropriate treatment when needed. This includes those in high-security hospitals, eligible for transfer.

* Patients able to decide about care should have the right to refuse treatment, unless at risk.

* No detention unless they need treatment for their own benefit or have committed a crime.

* No forcible treatment once they have left hospital. We need improved and more accessible services including mentors and sheltered accommodation.

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