Every week, Julie Robertson makes a four-hour round trip to see her husband. She's in south London, he's in Broadmoor, for armed robbery, and they first met in prison. Robertson is a `prison wife', one of an extraordinary group of women who marry the men they visit inside - out of love and virtue, or sheer folly? David Cohen asks why. Photographs by Zed Nelson
Dressed in a sleeveless top and knee-length skirt, Julie Robertson twirls her hair in a plait and tosses it over her shoulder. "The screws are always having a go at me for `inappropriate physical contact'," she says, applying a dash of lipstick and rolling a cigarette. "Apparently, the rules are that I must keep my legs on my side of the table. I ask my husband: do you think that if I give you head with my legs on my side of the table, that's within the rules?"

Julie is due at Broadmoor maximum security hospital in Berkshire at 2pm, to visit her husband, Alex Robertson, a "mildly schizophrenic" armed robber. "I think...," she pauses ruefully, as if considering a thought for the first time, whilst gunning her Ford Transit down the M3 ..."that my husband is secretly disappointed that he hasn't killed anyone. We had an argument when I visited last time. I said: `What's this rubbish you told the prison psychiatrist about a murder?'

`I killed a man over a drugs deal,' he said.


`I did', he insisted.

`You also claimed you were in the French Foreign Legion and that you'd taken someone hostage.'

"I told the authorities that murder is not Alex's style," she continues, emitting a gravelly laugh before biting into a tuna sandwich. "He's not violent, he's an armed robber. Armed robbery may sound dangerous, but all it is is going into a supermarket with a knife and saying, `Give me your money'."

She is like a character out of a Quentin Tarantino film, her conversation shifting seamlessly between the prosaic and the profound, with her own take on the world, her own home-grown morality, a regular Mrs Pink. Except that she is university-educated and middle class ("my dad was director of a textile company"). And this is real life.

It is 2.30pm when she pulls up outside the 20-foot walls that house some of the most dangerous and disturbed criminals in the country. Alex will be upset that she's late. She dashes off, tension etching her brow, through the metal detector and heavy, clanking security gate, through another security gate, past the Dickensian buildings with bars on the windows to the visitors' room in Central Hall, where her husband is waiting.

Like all good prison wives, it appears Julie is standing by her man. But there is a key difference between her and other long-suffering spouses. Julie met Alex for the first time when he was already in prison. You could say that it's her choice to be here.

Julie (whose detailed story is one of three that follow below) belongs to an extraordinary group of women who fall for men on the inside. They meet their future husbands by becoming prison visitors, voluntary associates, pen-friends or by chance encounters with prisoners allowed out on weekends towards the end of their term.

With the release of the Bridgewater Three, women who fall in love with prisoners have been in the public eye. Firstly, there was Christina Spencer, who struck up a pen-friend relationship and then married Hubert Spencer, the ex-convict some suggest is the real Bridgewater murderer. She went on television to defend her husband, saying: "The first thing I asked him when we met was: did you kill that little boy? He said `no' and I believed him." They became pen-friends after Christina, who was educated at public school, heard a letter he had written from prison read out on local radio. "As I listened to it, I thought: this is word-for-word how I feel. I wrote to him to say that people on the outside can also feel low and we began a correspondence. But I had no intention of taking it further - he sent me three visiting orders before I agreed to visit him in prison." Secondly, we were reminded that Theresa Robinson, the Grange Hill actress who married Jim Robinson of the Bridgewater Three, also met him while he was in prison.

There are more than 1,400 prison visitors in England and Wales, half of whom are women, but there are no statistics as to how many end up marrying prisoners. Harry Fletcher, press officer for the National Association of Probation Officers, claims it is a "fairly frequent" occurrence: "The number of women who form these relationships is small but significant... yet it is rare for men to fall for women on the inside. Perhaps it's because that is frowned upon as an abuse of power."

What motivates an educated, middle-class woman to become a prison visitor in order to meet a murderer or rapist for a weekly chat in the first place? Such a liaison is the last thing in the world most women would contemplate. Are these women unconsciously attracted to violent men, "forbidden fruit", or are they extremely virtuous, altruistic women?

The formal procedure for prison visiting, established since 1901, allows anyone aged 21 to 70 to apply to the governor of their local prison to become a prison visitor. Simply fill in an application form (two references required) and then present yourself for a 30-minute vetting interview by the prison visitor liaison officer, who is usually the chaplain. "They query your motives and whether you are able to be `non-judgmental', explains Alma McKenna, general secretary for the National Association of Prison Visitors (NAPV). "Prison visitors are usually people with a strong social conscience. They come from all walks of life, some are spiritually motivated, and a high proportion are professional people. Apart from minimal travelling expenses, they receive no money. But not everyone is able to be non-judgmental. As a prison visitor, you cannot choose who you wish to see and you aren't told the crime of the prisoner you're allocated. You may find out after a few visits, if the prisoner decides to tell you, that he is in for raping a child. You have to decide up front whether you'll be OK with that." Once accepted, the chaplain gives the names and numbers of the prisoners you're allocated to visit. You see them once a week, either in a private room or in their cell. That first visit, when the door slams shut leaving you alone with a man who may have done something unspeakably awful, is particularly daunting. The NAPV provides a booklet offering advice on everything from subjects of conversation to rules of conduct: "Normal rules of courtesy apply: before entering a cell, you should wait until he offers you a place to sit, and it is best not to run your eyes around the room looking at his pictures and belongings." And it advises you to keep your first meeting brief, down to a few minutes. The basic rule of conversation is to let him lead. "It's never wise to ask directly about his criminal history. When a prisoner wishes to tell you, he will do so in his own way, but it may be that you will never discuss the crime for which he is in prison." The rules are clear: do not take anything in, do not bring anything out, do not have any physical contact other than shaking hands, do not become emotionally involved and do not fall in love.

The enigma is this: what causes some women to go from prison visitor to marrying the murderer on the other side of the table? How can such damaged men be emotionally and sexually attractive?

Kate Pullinger, who spent a year as writer-in-residence at Gartree Prison in Leicestershire, believes that she came to understand how these women get hooked. "Some of these men epitomise a vulnerable machismo - a gentleness combined with a toughness - that is unusual and very attractive to some women. Unlike many men, they have had to talk about their emotions. Secondly, the unusual nature of the interaction gives women enormous power. Anyone who goes into a prison wearing a skirt knows that these men are at their mercy. They're a captive audience - you always know where they are and that they aren't seeing other women - and that exclusivity is flattering. Finally, everything about their interaction is intense - the phone calls, letters, weekly meetings - and heightened by the fact that they cannot have sex. At the same time, it's an artificial relationship because she never has to deal with what he looks like in the morning and never has to iron his shirts."

Attraction theory has it that "like is attracted to like" and that our real motives for falling in love are largely unconscious. Ann Casement, a Jungian analyst and vice-chair of the UK Council for Psychotherapy, says that "for complex reasons, these women are likely to need to be in total control in their relationships and that a relationship with a prisoner, particularly one who is never likely to be released, affords a unique opportunity to achieve that... Sometimes she will take on the role of the controlling mother, or she might play `the redeemer', believing that he needs her and that she alone can change him for the better. She may even believe she is acting out of altruism, but beneath that is likely to be unconscious guilt over having done wrong in the past herself."

Some women cynically target high-profile criminals by bombarding them with letters and then latching on like limpets. In their case, they seem driven by "reflected notoriety", basking in the perverse glory of their husband's misdeeds.

There is also the issue of what motivates the men, and who really has the power in these relationships. Paul Brittan, a forensic psychologist, says prisoners can be extremely manipulative. "They are desperate for female company and have all day to devise plans to get it. They may also be aware that having a stable relationship will please the parole board and may accelerate their release."

Are these relationships sustained after the prisoner is released? Is the re-offending rate of these men lower? "It's the great unknown," says Harry Fletcher. "We don't know because nobody has followed them up and researched it."

What we do have, however, are the compelling stories of the individual women themselves. Ironically, they contain all the ingredients of great romance: a seemingly bad man, an apparently virtuous woman, a bleak backdrop, a love fraught with risk and danger. Read him wrong and he may take you for all you're worth. Push him too far and he might kill you.

The Artist and the Murderer from Barlinnie

Caroline McNairn, 41, is an artist of international repute living in Edinburgh. She met her second husband, Hugh Collins, 45, in 1990 while he was serving a life sentence for murder.

"We met on the day of my exhibition at the 369 Gallery in Edinburgh. This man came up to me and said how much he liked my paintings and while he was looking at my art, I was sizing him up, thinking, mmmm, he's nice. I had just emerged from a 10-year failed marriage and I was musing that this elegant, gentle man constituted not a bad return to single life. When he walked away I grabbed my colleague.

`That's the lifer from the Special Unit', she said. `They let him out once a week to work in the gallery'.

Shit! I thought. There always has to be a catch.

The Special Unit at Glasgow's Barlinnie prison was part of an experiment where they took the most violent Scottish criminals and tried to help them through art and therapy. It was trendy for artists to become involved, and many of my colleagues saw it as proof that art had a function in society. There was also an aura attached to the Unit, and in particular to Hugh and Jimmy Boyle. It created a glamorous context in which a middle-class girl like myself could meet... [she laughs] a mad psychopath. But no way was I going to fall for a criminal.

Every Monday, Hugh would come to the gallery to work. I knew he'd be there and I suppose I found excuses to go in. We had pleasant conversations, mainly about art, but no big deal. Then something happened which made me realise my feelings for Hugh were stronger than I thought. He went on hunger strike. He had served 15 years - his `minimum recommended "life" sentence' - and was demanding his freedom. When he came off the strike, he phoned the gallery and I happened to take the call. It was an extraordinary, intimate moment. He sounded so vulnerable, so feeble.

That Christmas, Hugh presented himself uninvited at my door. We went to a pub and, at the end, we kissed. He was on a pre-release scheme and was allowed out every third weekend. I walked him back to the bus stop and said: `I think I've found a chum'. He laughed. `A chum? Me?' Just the idea was novel. But I had. We could be together in a way I never achieved with my first husband.

I knew he'd committed a murder, but I didn't know the full extent. He'd told me: `It was a gang fight, I stabbed him a lot of times'. I didn't want to hear more. But once we started going out, he told me everything. We would lie in bed and cuddle and he would tell me about his life of violence in graphic detail. Apart from killing Willie Mooney, he had stabbed three prison officers. He needed to tell me, but he was really telling himself. I remember standing over the sink being sick. One night I had a dream in which Hugh's hands had turned to knives. He looked like Edward Scissorhands. I woke up in a sweat, very scared. I felt in danger. My brother, a psychiatric social worker, reassured me. He said Hugh's kind of violence was not domestic.

Hugh kept diaries of his years in prison which he gave me to read. Although shocking, his openness made for an intimacy which was very attractive. Besides, I came into the relationship with my own baggage - a failed marriage, rootless, my life in chaos and Hugh was able to understand and support me.

We kept our relationship secret for a while, scurrying round, only telling a few friends. When I eventually told my parents, they freaked out and wouldn't speak to me for months.

In 1993, after Hugh was released, we were married in church. But I was completely unprepared for the rage he felt on getting out. We had a terrible scene one night: he came home and Sellotaped knives to his hands in order to do some bouncer who had insulted him. I had him on the floor, banging his head, trying to stop him, and suddenly I thought: I am not here to take knives away from you. I stopped, stood to one side and said: `OK, if you want to do him, go'. Later, he claimed he only did it because he knew I'd stop him.

He hardly slept, I had to be his nurse, looking after him 24 hours a day. My career went on the back-burner. I couldn't travel, my sponsor ditched me because I had married a convict, and the 369 Gallery, which I part-owned, collapsed. I didn't paint for four years. His rages continued, but I hung in there. His violence was never directed towards me.

Hugh has changed. He's outgrown the violence. With the publication of his book [Autobiography of a Murderer], he's gaining confidence and I can start becoming dependent on him.

Sociologists say that women of low self-esteem fall for men in prison. I'm not sure that's true of me. Hugh walked into my life, rather than I into his. And we met in the context of art, a morally neutral place where difference can be exciting. Some people insist that I am implicated in Hugh's guilt. I don't feel implicated, but it's complicated because when you marry a murderer the person they've killed is always there, hovering in the background. I'm very intimate with Hugh's guilt. But it's not my job to take it off him." The Doctor and the

Armed Robber

Dr Phyllis Windsor, 45, is a consultant radiotherapist and cancer specialist in Ninewells Hospital in Dundee earning pounds 54,000 a year. She is also the team doctor for Dundee Football Club. Her second husband, Stephen Windsor,45, a convicted armed robber, was sentenced to 20 years, reduced to 14 on appeal, for holding up a post office van in Edinburgh and the attempted murder of two policemen. He was released in 1994 and they now live at her home in Perth.

"The prison minibus dropped him off at Dundee railway station at 9 o'clock in the morning for his day out. I had parked my Mercedes on the other side of town because I didn't want him to think I was well-off. I strained my eyes to see who was getting off the bus, feeling a mixture of curiosity and detachment. I couldn't remember what he looked like and I wasn't sure why I had agreed to meet a prisoner in the first place. It was my intention to have a quick cup of coffee and leave.

He had written to me as the club doctor for Dundee FC, requesting complimentary match tickets for the prisoners for their day out every sixth Saturday. He reminded me that we had been introduced when my first husband, a prison officer, had arranged for the football team to visit his prison, but I had no memory of him. I passed his letter onto the club chairman and forgot about it. A month later, I got another letter, thanking me for my efforts but saying that the prison officers had blocked the tickets. This letter was more personal, telling me of his divorce. I had just divorced my first husband after 15 painful years and I felt I knew what it was like to be in prison. His letter struck a chord. I wrote back saying: `When you're next in Dundee, call me and I'll buy you coffee'.

We went to a cafe and he talked about his childhood on a council estate which was similar to mine. Towards the end of the afternoon, I asked him what he was in for. I was concerned that he might be a sexual offender or murderer, so when he told me that it was for armed robbery and the attempted murder of two policemen, I thought, well, that's all right then. He also had a criminal record for credit card fraud, theft, gang fights and assaults dating back to when he was a teenager.

As a cancer doctor, I meet people who are stripped of all their outer layers, so I take people as I find them. But I had no romantic interest. After putting up with my ex-husband for so long, I was emotionally and sexually shut down.

We exchanged letters, met up again, and then I started visiting him in prison for a couple of hours every Sunday. It's an odd relationship you develop with someone in prison, like a protracted old-fashioned courtship that builds gradually, relying on phone calls, letters and intense once- a-week meetings without ever being sexually consummated. His letters were passionate. All that desire aimed at me was flattering.

By the time he asked me to marry him, I said `yes' without even thinking. For the wedding, Stephen was allowed out for a few hours, but for the next few months, I only saw him for an hour across a table once a week in a crowded visitors' room.

My employers were supportive, but some of my colleagues thought I had married a loser who was intellectually beneath me. When he comes to social functions, they say disparagingly: `Oh, there's the criminal that Phyllis married'. I see beyond that. There are those who say he's a gold-digger, but I like the fact that he doesn't work, that he's there for me. He says I have all the power and he worries that one day I'll throw him out. But ex-convicts can't get jobs, so that's just how it has to be.

I get upset when I'm pigeon-holed as one of those weird women who write to men in prison and are attracted to violent men. I didn't mean to get involved with an armed robber. And Stephen's not been violent since I've known him. I'm not ashamed of who he is and what he's done. My only regret is that I had to waste half my life before I met the person I want to grow old with."

The Graduate and the Career Criminal

Julie Robertson (opening page), 36, is training to be a couples therapist. She met her husband, Alex Robertson, a40-year-old career criminal, when she became a prison visitor. She has since set up a charity called Halow London to support offenders and their wives, which she runs almost single-handedly from her cluttered flat in south London. Her husband, who has done time in a dozen prisons, is presently at Broadmoor.

"In 1990, after finishing my degree, I moved to London and got a flat opposite Brixton Prison. I had worked for three years counselling victims on a rape crisis line, and I was interested in asking rapists how they chose their victims. So I enlisted as a prison visitor. Unlike family visitors who meet in the visiting hall, prison visitors are allowed to visit prisoners in their cells.

The drill was as follows: I was escorted to F-wing - where they keep the most disturbed prisoners - and then the gate was locked behind me and I was left on my own. In those days, prisoners had to slop out, which meant urinating and defecating in a bucket in their cell. The stench was overwhelming. On each landing, I had to report to a prison officer, but I had to walk unescorted to the cells. I was terrified, I visited twice a week. My research fell by the wayside. The need of prisoners for some company was so acute.

In and amongst the general atmosphere of depression, there was this prisoner, Alex, who was chirpy as anything. He chatted me up, said I had a nice dress, and asked me about myself. At first I ignored his come-on, but I had to admit I found him physically attractive. He had rugged good looks, an experienced face, and a knowledge about prison life. I felt that if anything happened on my visits, he would protect me.

I checked up on Alex's criminal record. It was six pages long: from serious armed robbery to more minor things like shoplifting and credit card fraud. I imagined him going into a bank with a stocking over his face, a shotgun in his hand and saying: `Hand over all your money'. And I mean millions. I won't deny I felt a level of excitement about that. The `go out and get' mentality, the ruthlessness involved, can be attractive to a woman. I didn't know he'd ripped off a bloody off-licence with a toy gun from Woolworth's and made off with a pathetic pounds 120. When I found out he was really a hopeless armed robber, I was relieved. And yet there was a risk- taking, reckless side to him I found appealing.

In May 1992, Alex and I got married in prison. By then, I had been told that he was mildly schizophrenic, but it was too late - I was already in love. I saw a human being with lovely qualities and a serious, but not overwhelming, negative side. It was three years before Alex was due out and, with no conjugal visits, we faced a long wait to find out whether we were sexually compatible.

Married life on the outside turned out to be a mixed bag: our sex life was problematic and Alex suffered depression, but at least he didn't go out and immediately re-offend, which was his previous pattern. Things were going as well as could be expected, but then John, his former partner in crime, came to stay. John is homosexual and he claimed Alex was gay, that he and Alex were in love and that he could look after him better than I. Details were emerging about Alex that I didn't want to hear. I felt confused and betrayed. One night, 14 months after Alex had come home, I took my clothes and left.

Three hours later, Alex held up a bakery with a kitchen knife and they hauled him back to Brixton Prison. I interpreted it as a signal that it was me, not John, that he loved. So, ironically, by going back to prison, Alex saved our relationship.

For a while Alex was disturbed. He told the authorities he had killed someone and they sectioned him under the Mental Health Act and moved him to Broadmoor. It is pure fantasy - I know Alex is not capable of murder - but they have to check it out and keep him on medication. In the meantime, he's back to his old charming self.

People ask: Why Alex? Why a prisoner? Why not one of those gorgeous solicitors who dated me? I say that I need my man to be a challenge.

But there is something else. I like the control as to how often I see my husband. I absolutely hate having my space invaded. Maybe it's because when I was 12 years old I was sexually assaulted in a field by a stranger. Then, when I was 24, I was seriously assaulted again by someone else. I was pregnant at the time and I lost my baby.

I've had lots of therapy, but I wondered if I was doing something to make myself a victim. Alex was sexually abused as a child, too. We've both been damaged. We need each other's love, but we both need space.

He calls every day. I visit once a week. We're very much in love. The exclusivity of being the only woman he sees is intoxicating. He makes me feel like I'm one in a million."