Perils of new life outside jail

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The final irony in the case of the Bridgewater Three is that they might have had a far better chance of a new life if they had committed a crime. As Michael and Vincent Hickey and James Robinson try to come to terms with the last 18 years, they will receive none of the help or rehabilitation that convicted criminals could expect.

Psychologists and probation officers say the effect on those wrongfully convicted can be compared to hostages held in the Middle East. Many face severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. "No amount of compensation will pay for what they've been through," said David Boag, a chartered forensic psychologist who has worked in prisons for nearly 30 years. "This would devastate anybody. It is likely to have very, very negative effects on their life for a very long time.

"At the moment they will be very excited about being released, but after a while they could be overwhelmed by feelings of depression."

People who were wrongfully held often did suffer post-traumatic stress disorder: "They keep on going over and over the case. They can't get shot of it. They keep reliving the experience."

He said there were four main stages people went through: "Sometimes they go into denial and can't believe it's happened - that they have actually been released. Then there is anger and resentment that it happened in the first place. After that they may become emotionally drained and depressed. They feel like they are disappearing down the black hole. Then there is the final adjustment and acceptance but you don't know how long it can take."

It is a familiar tale to previous victims of injustice. A year after his release Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six, said in a newspaper interview: "Sometimes I feel like bursting into tears, or I have just to walk away ... There are times when I wish I was back in jail."

In the cases of the Guildford Four, they found different ways of adjusting. While Gerard Conlon achieved fame and money through his best- selling autobiography, In The Name of the Father, and Paul Hill married into the Kennedy clan, the other two, Patrick Armstrong and Carole Richardson, have quietly faded into anonymity.

In purely practical terms the Bridgewater Three will have to adjust to a very different world to the one they left in 1979. Since then the Cold War has ended, the Berlin Wall has come down, Communism has collapsed in Central and Eastern Europe and Nelson Mandela has been released. In day-to-day life back in 1979, simple electronic calculators were prized pieces of advanced technology, office workers used typewriters and the equivalents of desk-top PCs took up small rooms. Remote controls for televisions were still a thing of the future as were hole-in-the-wall cash dispensers. "There have been major changes in society," said Dr Gisli Gudjonsson, reader in forensic psychology at the University of London. "They will not be used to the increased traffic or the differences in technology. They may find it terrifying to get on a bus or a train or the Tube. And if people are let out suddenly they have no opportunity to adjust."

This is the major problem psychologists agree that the Bridgewater Three face. They will not have had any preparation which long-term prisoners normally receive and they will not be supervised by the probation service on their release. For the convicted criminal, the probation service must make sure there is accommodation arranged, that prisoners are signed on at social security and are connected to employment services. With no such service for the wrongfully convicted, they could even have problems with tasks such as opening a bank account.