Free after 36 years: the man who was left to rot in Broadmoor

Bill Collins tells the 'IoS' how his four-year prison sentence for assault turned into a life wasted in a secure hospital
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Indy Lifestyle Online

At the age of 19, Bill Collins attacked his girlfriend. He was found guilty of wounding her and sent to prison. It was 1962. He should have been out after four years. Instead he ended up in Broadmoor, where he spent 36 years of his life.

He never denied hurting his girlfriend or complained about being punished. "I was completely miserable," he says now, "but what I did was terrible." What happened to him after he was sent from prison to Britain's most notorious mental hospital was even more terrible. "In Broadmoor I was bashed and tortured, and wasted so much of my life."

He now fears others may be locked up for long periods in secure hospitals for lesser offences than he committed under mental health legislation that is expected to get a savaging in the House of Lords tomorrow.

A series of amendments has been put forward by peers who are furious that ministers have failed to heed their warnings that the Bill will stop people seeking help. The nine changes tabled include that stipulations patients should be forced into treatment only if they do not have the mental ability to make a decision for themselves and that people suffering from autism should not be targeted.

The strong cross-party support for the changes means that ministers may be forced either to rethink or discard many of their more draconian measures.

The Mental Health Alliance, whose members include the Law Society and Mind, said the Government must listen to the concerns of peers, psychiatrists and patients.

"What was laid before Parliament last month is not, in our view, a truly balanced Bill. It will neither promote civil rights nor make the public safer," said Andy Bell, chair of the Alliance.

Bill Collins was first sent to Wakefield Prison, where he studied botany and biology. "But I messed up." He attacked a civilian instructor. A few weeks later, Mr Collins was driven to Broadmoor. And the system forgot he had been sentenced to only four years. He recalls: "The nurses asked me if I wanted to do it the hard way or the easy way. I asked if doing it the easy way would mean compromising my integrity. They replied: 'We know which way you want to do it.'"

Broadmoor has housed many of the most difficult and dangerous people in the UK, including the serial killers Peter Sutcliffe and Dennis Nilsen. But in the 1960s not all of the most violent people were inmates. In the 1970s news leaked of nurses assaulting patients - a practice nicknamed the "boot treatment". The "wet towel" treatment was worse; patients were strangled almost to death with a wet towel. A few sex offenders were given female hormones and developed breasts. One man had to have a breast removed because the treatment went badly wrong.

Mr Collins admits he could be difficult sometimes. So he often got kicked and beaten by nurses. In 1967, three of them broke his arm deliberately.

For many years, Mr Collins's responsible medical officer was Broadmoor's boss, the medical superintendent Dr Patrick McGrath, father of the novelist, also called Patrick, who wrote Asylum. "I often asked him to take me off my medication because it caused me so much pain and so many side effects," Mr Collins said. He has lost most of his teeth, for example. "Don't nag me, Bill," Dr McGrath replied. "I'll take you off when you're ready." It took more than 35 years for psychiatrists to decide Mr Collins could do without the drugs.

In 2000 Mr Collins was released to Thornford Park, a medium- and low-secure unit in Thatcham, Berkshire. There, in one of the unit's flats, he learned to live on his own. Since leaving nine months ago, he has tried to get work but he was always turned down. He passed the tests to be a postman but was asked to provide employers' references for the past five years.

He now chairs a self-help group called Survivors Speak Out. While in Broadmoor, he won three Koestler prizes for performance of the spoken word. One was a 15-minute show about Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Today he works one day a week at the Brunel Museum.

Speaking from his flat in Clapham, south London, surrounded by a mass of books, Victorian prints, files, general mess and two birdcages, Mr Collins is remarkably sanguine. "The British mental health system is crap," he says. "If I hadn't been behind bars, I'd have been a collector."

Expert View

"This Bill is weighted towards compulsion and containment"

Baroness Neuberger; Lib Dem Health Spokeswoman in the Lords

"This will do nothing to bring... legislation into the 21st century"

Lord Carlile; QC, Chaired Committee that Scrutinised Bill

"[It's] rooted in the stereotype that those suffering from severe mental health problems are... dangerous"

Lord Bragg; Labour Peer, President of Mind

"[It] will need to find the balance between patients' autonomy and carers' rights"

Baroness Meacher; Ex-Mental Health Act commissioner

"In-patients from black minority groups are more likely to be detained. The proposals don't address this"

Lord Adebowale; Chief Executive, Turning Point

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. Such cases must be reviewed.

* Those able to make decisions about care should have the right to refuse treatment, unless others are put at risk.

* Mentally ill people should not be detained unless they need treatment for their own benefit or have committed a crime.

* They should not be subject to forcible treatment once they have left hospital. We need improved, more flexible and accessible services including the provision of mentors and sheltered accommodation.

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