They are kept in solitary and moved continually; it's a regime that drives them mad. They are treated like incurables. Monday's 'Panorama' reports on Britain's most dangerous prisoners, the ones known as...

THERE is a special place for the very very bad in prison known as The Cage. It is in the bowels of Wakefield Jail. Those who have been inside or visited it say it resembles Hannibal Lecter's hideous place of confinement in Silence of the Lambs.

Eddie Clinton, a Leeds clothes-dealer, went to see his old cell-mate Charlie Bronson in it. "It's a cell within a cell," he explains, "all the furniture is made from pressed cardboard, and the bed is bolted to the floor. The outside cell door is standard and inside there's a wrought- iron barred gate and in between there's Perspex and mesh. At the bottom of the door is a letter-box thing and that's how Charlie gets his food. There's no human contact. Charlie's on a '12-man unlock' which means he can only leave if there are 12 prison officers and dogs present. I don't think he likes it that much."

To be fair, Charlie Bronson (bornMichael Peterson) is reputedly the most dangerous prisoner in Britain. He is only 45 but has already spent a quarter of a century behind bars of which some 20 years have been in solitary. Because he has committed more crimes in prison than out he is further punished by being shunted endlessly through the Stygian gloom of its nastier institutions in a pointless journey of permanent transience. In one year alone, a desperate Prison Service propelled him through 30 prisons.

Earlier this month, even the former Chief Medical Officer, Sir Donald Acheson was moved to recommend that Charlie and the 29 other most dangerous men in prison be given regular health checks to see if they were in danger of going mad.

Bronson is not mad. If he were, he would be back tucked up with the similarly afflicted in a Special Hospital receiving treatment.

But he is a psychopath - someone who is not formally insane but who suffers from a severe personality disorder - and he doesn't have to be treated unless the psychiatrist concerned deems this "likely to alleviate or prevent a deterioration" of the condition.

Bronson is one of about 150 so-called Predators. They are the most dangerous, violent and disruptive prisoners in the system. Most are severely personality- disordered psychopaths - a condition defined by patterns of irresponsible, violent and childish behaviour. Psychopaths are broadly perceived as incurable, disruptive, unrewarding patients propelling many psychiatrists who ought to know better to escape gratefully through the broad loops of the 1983 Mental Health Act and refuse treatment.

Consequently, the Prison Service, which has few ideas on what to do with them, is legally obliged to contain them. The worst are confined in SSUs (special secure units) which Sir Donald now calls "somewhat cramped, claustrophobic, with very limited meaningful work ... a lack of social contact and incentives." Over the course of the years, he adds, "a proportion have significant adverse effects to mental health." In other words, they send you mad.

The very worst are further dumped on to the hated "merry-go-round" (euphemistically called the Continuous Assessment Scheme) and forcibly moved every three weeks or so on a mandatory tour of all Britain's solitary confinement wings.

One does not have to waste compassion on these men without nevertheless asking politely (as has Sir Donald) whether this is not a form of cruel and unusual punishment, or whether it achieves anything, beyond a further murderous darkening of the spirit. Some of these predators are on fixed sentences and once released they will surely maim and kill once more with renewed relish as they get their own back on a society that has merely reinforced their immature and narcissistic psychopathic behaviour.

Take the case of Dawn Bromiley, for example, whose 21 year-old daughter Suzanne was raped and murdered in 1991 by an untreated psychopath who had absconded while on home leave. This was a classic example of the untreated psychopath merely swapping a prison merry-go-round for a civilian merry- go-round of crime. What is the point of locking these monsters up, throwing away the key, if, at the end of a determinate sentence they are free to haunt us again?

One man who tried to break into this vicious circle was Dr Bob Johnson, a Yorkshire-born psychiatrist. In 1991 he became the psychiatrist at C wing in Parkhurst where in the course of a unique experiment he recruited some 18 Predators, among them a dozen of the most violent psychopaths - all of them killers - in the system. Dr Johnson instituted a one-on- one psychotherapy regime based on a controversial and still unproven thesis. He believes that all psychopaths are hiding from some appalling childhood trauma, usually at the hands of their mother or father. If they can be made to confront those experiences (often in painfully dramatic and cathartic sessions) then the psychopathy can be cured. While there is very little supporting evidence for this controversial and simplistic approach, there is no doubt that Dr Johnson's work produced some temporary but beneficial results. Among his group of Predators the number of personal assaults, wing emergencies, drug-taking and other misdemeanours plummeted while he was treating them. Previously, the Predators have been held to be without redemption. Now even a critic of Dr Johnson, the eminent Professor Jeremy Cold, agrees that his work should be thoroughly audited to see what it is that may have been achieved.

Early last year the Home Office peremptorily closed Johnson's C wing down. No attempt was made to audit the five years of experimental work. After an unrelated escape from Parkhurst, the progressive and supportive governor John Marriott was eased out of his job and Dr Johnson resigned in disgust.

There is a different approach in Holland, where they think they're cracking the problem. Unlike Dr Johnson, the Dutch do not believe in a cure for the disorder but they do believe that with prolonged group and individual therapy, very careful inward management and extremely vigilant and graduated release procedures, they can return some psychopaths to a normal life in society. "We can't cure them", says Han Hillege, a clinical psychologist at Oldenkotte Hospital, "but, put crudely, we can train some of them, like circus animals. We teach them that the game is just not worth the candle, that they can either live a life behind walls, or behave themselves and live a normal life. We teach them anger management, sexual control and through milieu therapy, we teach them to tolerate, if not love, their fellow humans." Significantly, the recidivism rate for treated and released psychopaths is some 50 per cent less than for released and untreated psychopaths.

In Britain a mere handful of psychopaths are selected for the precious few treatment beds in special hospitals such as Broadmoor where the NHS has full clinical control. In Woodstock Ward Professor Pamela Taylor and her team are pioneering treatment methods which, like Holland, show promising results. She selects personality-disordered prisoners up to the age of 30 and, using techniques similar to those used by the Dutch, she is giving treatment aimed at helping the gradual release of these young men back into the community after four to five years (in Oldenkotte the average time is nine years). The ward can take up to 25 patients and although the older Predators are excluded, Professor Taylor's work is at least helping prevent the elevation of young psychopaths into that group. Provisional results show a dramatic reduction in recidivism - more evidence that with time, money and commitment, the scandal surrounding the non-treatment of Britain's criminal psychopaths can at least be addressed.

But little of this touches Charlie Bronson, rotting in some segregation cell (and due for a return to The Cage) before he's moved to another. Bronson has found infamy not only as the most dangerous prisoner in Britain - an undeserved sobriquet he rather enjoys - but also as the most notorious.

It must be acknowledged that Bronson has blown every chance he ever had. He has been offered treatment in all three of Britain's special hospitals but mucked up every time. During a Rampton stay Bronson tried to strangle a paedophile ("I did kill him but the staff gave him the kiss of life", says a truculent Bronson).

On the more positive side, Bronson possesses a wicked sense of humour, a proper sense of self-deprecation, and is a skilled cartoonist with a bright naif style. He has won two Arthur Koestler Awards for literature, and his writings and pictures have been published by Esquire. What remains a paradox is that nearly everyone who has met him either likes him or wants to treat him. Every psychological assessment of Bronson contains veins of optimism inside the quarry of despair that has been his life.

In a telephone interview I asked Bronson what he had done all day while he was in The Cage and similar segregation units: "Press-ups, drawings, letters, that kind of stuff." He made it sound like a quiet room in a rather nice hotel.

But the word is that Charlie Bronson is slowly losing it. If that is so, at least he'll go back to Broadmoor (which he wants) for better treatment than he got on his last visit. How was life on the merry-go-round I asked him: "It's a journey of madness, you move around so much you forget where you are. In the last four years I've been moved 58 times." And life in solitary? "You think about things, you double-think, you play with memories. Must keep fit, must keep fit otherwise you start to go mad." The voice trails off, and then, quietly, "If it goes on like this I think I'm gonna die, a man can't keep moving around like this, maybe a heart attack, maybe a strange death, maybe I'll run at the door with my head and smash my head open and break my neck."

Even the Prisons Ombudsman, Sir Peter Woodhead, is moved to remark: "...given the consensus that the present method of dealing with Mr Bronson is having a damaging effect on him ... efforts [should be made] now to deal with Mr Bronson in a more humane manner."

But the Prison Service lacks distinction for imagination, positive thinking and humanity. The unnecessary closure of Dr Johnson's C wing a year ago was a further demonstration of its lack of commitment to the kind of treatment its more serious inmates urgently require.

The service has just announced a new programme for these people to open in Durham and Woodhill prisons, probably next year. But only a maximum of 60 inmates can be accommodated at one time, most of the work will be done by "specially trained prison officers" and there will only be light local back-up from the NHS. Interestingly, the hated merry-go-round will "no longer be required", says the Prison Service, once the new system is up and running - an assurance that prompts one to ask why it was necessary in the first place.

General Sir David Ramsbotham, the vigorous new Chief Inspector for Her Majesty's Prisons, believes unequivocally that the caring and treatment of predatory psychopaths should be formally handed over to the NHS which is properly qualified (if considerably under-resourced) to deal with them in a humane and constructive fashion. The security side of their containment should be retained by those who know the turn-key function best - the Prison Service.

As Sir David puts it: "What worries me about these people is that if you merely shut them up and throw away the key you are going to throw them back to the public later with none of their horrendous problems having been properly addressed ... however appalled you are, you've got to do everything you can to prevent them ever doing that again and if that means treatment, well so be it. We must give them treatment."

Tom Mangold's 'Panorama' report, Predators, is on Monday, 9.30pm, BBC1

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