'They were bound to say she died of natural causes, but she was still only 50'

Carol Hanson took her own life because she had lost all hope of being released, say prison inmates. Graham Ball reports
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At 10am last Sunday, a woman prisoner at Cookham Wood jail in Kent took a bath. At 10.17am a fellow inmate found her unconscious and raised the alarm. At 10.55am the prison's senior medical officer pronounced the 50-year-old woman dead. Officially it has been declared that there are no suspicious circumstances and that she died of natural causes.

Women at the jail believe, however, that Carol Hanson, who had spent more than a quarter of a century behind bars, killed herself because she thought she would never be released. Four days earlier, the press had reportedMichael Howard's decisionthat for some prisoners a life sentence would be exactly what it says.

The dead woman was the British criminal justice system's forgotten woman, sentenced to life for the murder of a 10-year-old girl which she denied and which her husband, who was also convicted of the crime, said she did not do. At the time of her death she was in her 27th year behind bars. No other woman in Britain other than Myra Hindley had served longer.

Yet her name and the astonishing length of her served sentence were unknown, not only to the public at large, but also to prison reform groups, who were stunned by the story.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "We are only aware of two women, Rose West and Myra Hindley, who are serving extremely long prison sentences. I have never heard of this case before. The majority of women serving life expect to be out after four to eight years."

Last Friday a prisoner at Cookham Wood telephoned the Independent on Sunday and claimed to speak on behalf of many of the women there.

She said: "The people here believe that she killed herself. She became very distressed shortly before last weekend when she read what the Home Secretary had said about lifers staying in prison until they died. She believed that this rule applied to her. We believe the Prison Service are trying to hush this up because we have got a new governor here and I do not think that anyone has ever died here before, let alone committed suicide. They are bound to say natural causes, but Carol was only 50."

The caller, who gave her name but asked to remain anonymous, said Carol Hanson had requested parole last year and later asked for permission to prepare an appeal. But the months dragged on and she told friends she had started to despair of ever being freed.

"Carol always took her bath in the medical wing, but last Sunday she went up on the third floor and locked the door behind her, which was strange because she never usually locked the door," the caller said

Carol Hanson was thought to suffer from a lung disorder which was why she bathed in the medical wing, where there is supervision.

Another woman recently released from the prison said Carol Hanson was a model prisoner. "She was a pleasant, softly spoken woman who kept herself to herself. As a lifer she had her own cell. She had very long hair which was a bit unkempt. She was never in any sort of trouble.

"Her family visited quite regularly, and I believe she kept in touch with her husband, who was also in prison. It is very tragic but I believe that this is only the first of many such deaths. If the Government tell people they have no hope of ever coming out of prison, people will get depressed and some will take their own lives."

Carol Hanson's incarceration began on 10 July 1970 when the notoriously severe Mr Justice Melford Stevenson, one of the last hanging judges, sentenced her and her husband, Michael, to life for the murder of Christine Beck, recommending that the couple should serve "at least 20 years".

The present "tariff" rules regarding the length of time a lifer must actually serve were not then in operation. These were codified in 1984, and involved a review of all life sentences.

When the prisoner came within three years of the tariff date, said a Prison Service spokesman, parole could be considered. Asked why Carol Hanson had not been considered for parole after the 20 years set by the trial judge, he said : "It appears that a home secretary may well have reviewed the case and set a higher tariff."

Beverley Thompson, of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, said: "It would appear that the system had closed against her. I believe that this clearly demonstrates the need for much more clarity when people are sentenced to long periods. Sentences with no end in sight are very hard for any individual to come to terms with."

Stephen Shaw of the Prison Reform Trust said the sentence of 20 years was about what could be expected for a murder of a child where sex was involved. "We were not aware of this case," he said. "We know of numerous cases of men who have served 25 years and more but it is extremely rare for a woman to remain in prison for more than 20 years.

"There is an interesting comparison with Myra Hindley, whose case has been set back by a high-profile campaign for her release. This woman who had no support from any of the campaigning organisations or individuals, and seems to have become the forgotten woman of the prison system."

There is evidence to suggest that Carol Hanson, who died having still not heard whether she would be eligible for parole,should never have been in prison.

The trial of the accused couple, who had married just eight months earlier, made national headlines for two weeks in the summer of 1970. Each blamed the other for the killing of the young girl at their house on an Army housing estate near Colchester, Essex.

But four days into the trial at the Hertfordshire Assizes, Michael Hanson, a private in the Royal Anglian Regiment, confessed to his lawyer that his wife had nothing to do with the killing.

However, because he refused to change his plea from not guilty, his QC, Leslie Boreham, made no reference to the confession and the jury in the trial were never told of it.