Crime and punishment: Why throwing away the key doesn't work

It is not liberal weediness to baulk at whole-life sentences. It's knowing that, without a hairline of hope, those in prison become more dangerous

Douglas Vinter will die in prison. So he deserves to do: he is a double murderer who strangled and stabbed his wife, Anne White, in 2008 while free on licence for the killing of Robert Eden, a railway worker, more than a decade earlier. "The extreme violence which you used is described as continuing," the judge said as he passed sentence. "You therefore fall into that small category of people who should be deprived permanently of their liberty."

Many offenders are sentenced to "life". After serving a certain minimum tariff, which might be 10, 15 or 30 years, they become eligible for parole: a portion of their sentence is punitive, and after that the length of their stay in prison depends on the prospect of rehabilitation. But that will not be the case for Vinter. What the judge meant was that he would be given a whole-life sentence. Not only has the court decided he should spend the rest of his days in prison – it has decided that his case should never come up for review.

Under such sentences, available since the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, the only theoretical route to release is if a prisoner is terminally ill and a minister considers him deserving of compassion. One of the criteria for this exception is if "further imprisonment would reduce life expectancy" – that is, would reduce the length of his sentence, which lasts exactly as long as his heart continues to beat. In any case, no prisoner serving a whole-life term has been freed on such grounds since the law was introduced.

It is generally assumed that such a sentence ends the violence of a man like Vinter. In fact, it has nurtured it. Whatever he deserves, giving him no hope of freedom means he has no incentive to control himself. Dr Stephanie Hill, a consultant in forensic and clinical psychology who assessed him, warned in a submission to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that he has "little concern for others in light of his whole-life order and this lack of concern has recently manifested itself in an assault on another inmate".

Three years ago, Vinter explained his attitude in a letter to The Guardian written from the segregation unit where he said he had been sent for stabbing someone. He had been given, he felt, "an invisible licence that said I can breach any laws I want … I said to the governor, don't waste any money on investigations, just give me another life sentence for my collection. They don't mean anything any more."

Soon after that, he stabbed Roy Whiting – the killer in 2000 of seven-year-old Sarah Payne – in the eye, using the sharpened handle of a toilet brush.

To think that a justice system that condemns some people to a lifelong existence without hope is flawed, you don't need to feel any sympathy for this man. You don't have to believe in the possibility of change. All you have to feel is that it's desirable for Douglas Vinter to believe in it. Because when Douglas Vinter has some prospect, however faint, however distant, however unlikely, of release, he has an incentive to not stab people in the eye.

Under such a system, Douglas Vinter might get a review of his case after 25 years. If he did not satisfy the parole board that he was likely to be one of the 98 per cent of mandatory lifers who do not reoffend, he would not be released. Granting him an infinitesimal hairline of hope would have cost nothing. Instead, says Alison Liebling, director of the Prisons Research Centre at Cambridge University's Institute of Criminology, we put such prisoners – there are about 50 in the UK – in a world of futility. "You create this environment of no hope, no meaning," she says. "When you've ruled out the possibility of atonement, most of the ways out are dangerous."

This is not liberal weediness. It is a cold, rational analysis of the facts. It is, unfortunately, not an analysis that the Government is minded to consider. Last year, to the familiar snap of knees jerking, Vinter, along with two other convicted murderers serving whole-life sentences, won an appeal to the ECHR. As the court was at pains to make clear, this decision did not mean that there was any imminent prospect of release. All the judgment said was that it had to be possible.

The British government's response to this has not been a substantive engagement with the legal and moral argument. Instead, it has decided to launch ad hominem assaults on the ECHR for having the temerity to apply a set of rights that we ought to be proud to see as British.

And last week, in a grotesquely immature response to such a solemn judgment, the Government has mooted a workaround: if we can't send people to prison for the rest of their natural lives, it has said, we'll send them for 100 years.

The Government's pitch on the subject has been deeply, and perhaps deliberately, confusing: it has briefed that such jail terms would allow reviews, thus satisfying the court. But you could just as well incorporate that right into the current whole-life sentencing regime. And David Cameron's bombastic public remarks seemed to suggest the opposite. "Life should mean life," he insisted. "Whatever the European Court has said we must put in place arrangements to make sure that that can continue."

There is something sickeningly enthusiastic in this assertion: a politicised determination to nurture total despair. The debate reached an absurd pitch when the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, complained that the sentence meted out to a double murderer who killed again while on day release was unduly lenient, and referred it to the Court of Appeal. After the European ruling, Ian McLoughlin had been given a life sentence with a 40-year minimum term. By the time he is even eligible for parole, he will be 95. Or dead.

Besides anything else, all this "seems absolutely pointless", says Matthew Evans, who spent six years as managing solicitor of the Prisoners' Advice Service. "The review procedure would be done by the High Court, and I cannot see a High Court looking at certain whole-life tariffs and saying actually they're free to go. Judges aren't falling over themselves to release people convicted of these offences."

All that is being asked for is a chink of light. Ann Power-Forde, an Irish judge of the European Court, made a good case for the reasons why this is important in her assenting opinion. "Those who commit the most abhorrent and egregious of acts and who inflict untold suffering upon others," she wrote, "nevertheless retain their fundamental humanity and carry within themselves the capacity to change. Long and deserved though their prison sentences may be, they retain the right to hope that, some day, they may have atoned for the wrongs which they have committed. They ought not to be deprived entirely of such hope."

To run through the list of prisoners who have been subjected to whole-life sentences in Britain is not to find yourself instinctively howling at injustice. These people have committed crimes of such premeditated wickedness that it is only natural to want to throw away the key. "There are some very horrible crimes," acknowledges Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit, an expert in life sentences at the University of Nottingham. "You think of Dr [Harold] Shipman or something – where the retributive period must be very long,"

"I can see why a judge would say, in a truly extreme case like that, that you must be inside for ever," he adds. But Article 3 of the Human Rights Act, the law by which Britain adopted the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights, does not make exceptions for the worst among us. "It's precisely that sort of understandable reaction that should be examined again some years later, when emotions have cooled," says Professor van Zyl Smit. "Such people deserve long sentences. But the question is whether they deserve for ever."

For the moment, then, set aside the practical considerations about the behaviour of such people as Douglas Vinter, and ask: what does it do to a person to face a life without hope? What does it mean to be 50, and to be told you will be locked away for 100 years?

Alison Liebling, who conducted two major studies, 12 years apart, at HM Prison Whitemoor, says that the lifer's lot is a distinctive one. "You see these quite young prisoners facing unimaginably long times in prison, longer than they've been alive, and they can't get their heads round it," she says. "They say, really blandly, 'For the first four or five years I had trouble with my emotions.' And anything can happen to them, really."

Such prisoners are understood by their fellow inmates to have nothing to lose. "They get used by other prisoners, targeted and asked to carry out violent acts on their behalf. They become usable commodities."

Dr Liebling has a chilling formulation for the effect on a prisoner of the decision to lock them up for ever, hence abandoning any gesturetowards rehabilitation: they stop being people, she says, and become "sites of physical danger".

Some do find a way to navigate this. "They can be mature, reflective... they find a way, perhaps they're fighting their convictions, because actually they find it psychologically impossible to give up on hope and live," says Liebling.

For others, the consequence in the end is a sort of bovine docility. "At the beginning of the sentence there is often a lot of friction or trouble, a difficulty in acceptance," says Matthew Evans. "In the end, most prisoners would say that lifer wings are pretty placid places."

And there will always be those like Douglas Vinter. In a documentary last year, Lifers, Channel 4 spoke to Philip Hegarty, given a whole-life sentence after he murdered his best friend with a hammer. "The judge said I would die in prison, so I'll die in prison," he said, his eyes glassy. "You may as well say go and commit suicide – do you want the rope, or do you want the knife?" As he spoke, two guards were searching his provisions. "How do you control people like me?" he mused. "If I kill these two officers here, and I wouldn't, but if I did, what do they do?"

In the end, though, I am not inclined to see Vinter and Hegarty as the best evidence for the argument. To decry the absence of sentence reviews for merely pragmatic reasons instead of from a position of principle is to enable the reply: well, we might as well just execute them. And the truth is, such sentences are functionally not far away from the hangman's noose. The sentenced do not die, but they cannot be said to continue to live: their meaningful existences are severed in just the same way, and their punishment is, in just the same way as an execution, both wildly draconian and nothing like enough. Nothing can ever be enough.

It is an irony of the way we talk about all this that the term "life" has become so fraught, so deprived of meaning by its status as a soundbite. "Life should mean life," Mr Cameron insists. But that's not what this system really stands for. When there is no hope, life doesn't mean life. It means death.

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