The killers who will never go free

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Myra Hindley is among the first of about 20 prisoners to be told that they will die in jail. For this notorious category of prisoner, life will mean life.

The others include her co-killer Ian Brady; other child-killers Robert Black and John Straffen; the serial killers Peter Sutcliffe, Dennis Nilsen and Colin Ireland; Donald Neilson, the so-called Black Panther; and Michael Sams, who kidnapped two young women.

Harry Roberts, the robber who shot dead three policemen in 1966, has been told he will serve 30 years before he is considered for parole. Over the next few weeks, the country's 2,500 prisoners who are` serving compulsory life sentences for murder will all learn the number of years the Home Secretary has decided they should actually serve.

The move follows a Law Lords' ruling that ended the practice of never telling prisoners the tariff - the sentence decided upon by the Home Secretary after recommendations by the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice - or giving them the chance to make representations.

But in implementing the ruling, the Home Secretary has introduced a new and controversial tariff of natural life. He had tried to introduce such a "whole life" sentence in the newly enacted Criminal Justice and Public Order Act for particularly dangerouskillers but failed to win Cabinet backing. He has now been accused of introducing the measure by the back door and without parliamentary debate.

The move, which takes away all hope from a prisoner, has also been condemned by prison governors as well as penal reform groups. One senior governor yesterday warned of the dangers of placing prisoners in such a hopeless situation. "It will no longer matter what they do or how they behave. They might decide to take their own lives - thinking there is no longer any point in living.

"They may cause real control problems because they no longer have any reason to behave or they may decide to escape."

The letters are being prepared in batches and all mandatory life sentence prisoners will know their tariffs within the next few weeks. All of them like Hindley will then have the chance to make representations before Michael Howard makes a final decision.

But he is unlikely to be moved in such cases as that of Sutcliffe, who killed 13 women between 1975 and 1980; Nilsen, the civil servant who murdered and dismembered 15 young men in his north London home between 1978 and 1981; or Ireland who was sentencedlast year for killing five gay men.

Black - who was convicted earlier this year of kidnapping and murdering three girls, Susan Maxwell and Sarah Harper, both aged 11, and Caroline Hogg, aged five - is another likely to serve natural life. As is Michael Sams, who in December 1993 was given four life sentences for the abduction and murder of Julie Dart, the kidnapping of Stephanie Slater, and blackmail.

Another of those never likely to be freed is Straffen, now 64, who was sentenced in 1952 for the murder of two small girls in Bath. He escaped from Broadmoor secure hospital six months after his trial and killed again.

Neilson, who kidnapped and murdered Lesley Whittle, 17, after holding her captive in a drainage shaft, and murdered three post office officials during armed raids between 1971 and 1975 is also expected to serve natural life.

However, Roberts, who many thought would receive a whole life sentence because he was one of gang that killed three policemen, is due for parole in two years. He has been given a 30-year tariff.

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