I had spent the morning with a cross-section of Grendon's 200 inmates: two murderers, one rapist, one burglar, one armed robber and a man serving six years for wounding. They answered some of my questions about life inside Grendon, but I wanted to attend one of the therapy sessions that makes the place special. As Grendon works on democratic principles, it was explained, my request would be subject to a vote by the group and if just one inmate objected I would be barred.
Despite the presence of three uniformed officers I felt uncomfortable as I made my case to a stoney-faced audience of 35 inmates seated round the large, bare room. Some of them, after all, had a history of violence, especially towards women.
Several men made no secret of their distrust of the media. "We've been turned over by you lot before," said one, quoting a recent Sun headline - "Perverts' Paradise".
I tried to reassure them but when the vote was taken, three hands went up in dissent. I was out. I grabbed my coat and left the meeting, finding myself alone in the corridor. (The doctor who had accompanied me was still inside.)
Eventually a friendly face appeared. Late 30s, well-spoken, casual but professional in white shirt and jeans, he introduced himself and asked, with some authority, what I was doing there. I explained and he took charge. Grendon needed good publicity, he said; if I were willing to come back another day he would try to persuade another group to let me in. Unsure whether I was talking to a psychiatrist or some other sort of therapist, I asked "And what do you do here?" "I'm an inmate," he said.
A little shocked, I asked the nearest prison officer to let me out. "Was that just a game?" I asked. "No," he said. "Peter is very articulate and persuasive, as you just discovered. I'm sure his group will agree to invite you back." They did and I went.
GRENDON Underwood, near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, is the only prison in Britain that operates entirely as a "therapeutic community" for men with a severe personality disorder, some of whom may be classed as psychopaths.
According to the admissions criteria, it specialises in "explosive, aggressive individuals". A third - more than 70 - are "lifers" and a quarter are sex offenders. A large majority have committed a crime of violence; 60 have been convicted of murder. Yet Grendon is one of the most relaxed prisons for such offenders in Britain; almost the opposite of the "decent but austere" regime that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, wants.
The inmates wear their own clothes; they have television sets in their cells; some keep pet birds. If prison hurts here, it does not do so in any sense that Mr Howard would understand.
Grendon is unusual because it attempts to treat what are called "personality- disordered" offenders. A personality disorder is not the same thing as a mental illness such as schizophrenia, which is episodic and can usually be treated with drugs. Some psychiatrists think personality disorder is not treatable at all; it is just an ingrained part of a man or woman and therefore impossible to change.
Grendon, by contrast, argues that such people can change. Its psychiatrists and psychologists believe that violent behaviour is strongly influenced by childhood experience. Most people, they argue, learn proper social behaviour and some sensitivity towards others during their "formative years". A minority, during childhood, suffer experiences - sexual or physical abuse, lack of love, for example - that distort their personalities. Their formative years thus become de-formative years.
Grendon attempts to change or reform the personality disorder through the therapeutic regime. Its aim is to offer inmates the chance to discuss their abnormal behaviour and the experiences that have led to it. It also gives them the opportunity to learn responsibility and consideration for other people.
Peter Lewis, Director of Therapy, explained: "They are offered opportunities where the discussion of their abnormal behaviour can take place. We expect them to examine ways in which their previous experiences have contributed to the development of certain types of behaviour which have brought them into conflict with the law and with society in particular.
"We expect them to live together and behave towards each other appropriately and listen to other people's opinions as well."
The inmates themselves are more direct. "Here," said Jim, serving five and a half years for armed robbery, "you are made to stop and think about what you did and see the consequences of your actions." Charlie, serving six years for wounding, added: "There is no hiding place. You've got to sit and talk openly about what you've done to your victims. You've got to talk frankly about your life, what has happened to you."
Although liberal by the standards of most prisons, Grendon has four cardinal rules - no drink, drugs, violence or sex. Charlie explained: "Grendon is about changing your behaviour. If you don't stick to the therapy you are thrown out. That may not sound much to you, but being sent out of Grendon means a lot. It means going back to the horrible prison lifestyle."
The prison takes mainly category B offenders and does not accept category A prisoners, who present a higher risk of escaping and greater danger to the public. Generally men of average intelligence and above are considered suitable for therapy and those of "robust psychological fibre" are judged fit for the rigours of group therapy.
They must be serving a sentence long enough for them to have at least 18 months in therapy and be motivated to change. Judging by the inmates I interviewed they appeared determined to change and to understand, and co-operate with, the therapy.
"ANY Questions" was my introduction to Grendon. This is a forum for discussion with visitors that is run entirely by inmates and excludes prison staff. Six volunteers agreed to see me.
Sitting in a circle in a room furnished only with chairs, used ash- trays and a coffee table, they were as keen to ask me questions as to answer mine. As the scheduled half an hour turned into 90 minutes I began to wonder who was interviewing whom and whether I was in fact part of the therapy. It was the first of two sessions I attended: at the first we talked mainly about the Grendon regime and on my return I asked what they had done and why. They were articulate and, at times, surprisingly frank.
Ron, 45, with longish sandy hair and bushy beard, had the air of a genial academic. "My victim was unknown to me," he said. "I had only just met her that night. I was introduced to her at 10 o'clock and by 12 o'clock I had killed her.
"On the night of the killing I had been on a drinking binge. I just had a bust-up with my wife. She had taken my daughter. I felt very aggressive and angry. I picked up a mate because I didn't want to be on my own and I paid for everything. We were bingeing all day. That night at about 10 we decided to go back to my house. We picked up some cans from the off- licence and when I came out he introduced me to this woman who became my victim. She came back with us to my house and we carried on drinking."
My friend asked if he could use my bed. They went upstairs and had sex. He was living at a hostel and he went. I was left with the woman. We carried on drinking and we went upstairs and had sex. Just as we finished having sex she started lashing out. (I later found out she had epilepsy.) I lost my temper just instantly. My opinion of her was very low. I couldn't understand why a woman who didn't know me went to bed with me, which was totally wrong. That clouded my judgement. I ended up stabbing her twice."
Grendon has helped him understand, or at least to rationalise, why. "Drink was a major problem. I was an alcoholic for many years. A lot of things I have carried through my life. I was born in a military family. Never had roots. I was abused as a child. With my brother and sister, we were all raped continually and made to have sex with each other. Eventually I shopped my father to the military police. I developed a love-hate relationship with authority. Once my father was off the scene I took power into my own hands. I used abuse and physical abuse, especially with women. Sex was my only object. Relationships with me were just sex."
After four years at Grendon Ron was due to move to a conventional prison to serve the rest of his time, confident that he is a reformed character.
Rick, aged 29, dark hair pulled into a ponytail, was a little sarcastic during Any Questions, but opened up at the second session I attended.
"I was in a strong relationship which centred around my drugtaking which was becoming excessive. She left me three times. When she came back the last time I stopped taking drugs and stopped drinking. I had been clean for about three days. We had an argument. I was convinced she was going out to see someone else and I killed her. I put it down to jealousy and anger. I didn't mean to kill her. I strangled her. I had sex with the dead body and hid it in a rain culvert in the motorway. About a week later police arrested me."
Rick had a seven-year history of drugs from cannabis to LSD. "I used to have lots of acquaintances outside," he said. "I thought they were friends. But when I came into prison the number of friends has dwindled. But since coming to Grendon everyone who has written to me has noticed a change in me. It's called growing up a bit. All these relationships are now a lot stronger than they were, with family and friends."
The development of insight shown by Ron and Rick is one of the essential elements of the Grendon regime. Peer pressure is another.
There are two sorts of therapy sessions: twice-weekly "wing meetings", comprising all inmates, prison officers and therapists to discuss problems arising from living together in the community and developing in therapy; and small "therapy groups" of up to eight inmates with one or more members of staff, meeting three to five times a week. I had been thrown out of the first type and I was eventually allowed to observe the second. This was attended by five inmates, along with a doctor, a probation officer and the head of psychology.
The discussions focused on Andrew and Peter. Andrew had pulled out of the group and was appealing to be allowed back in. Peter (the inmate I had mistaken for a member of staff) had tested positive for cannabis and faced the ultimate sanction of being thrown out of Grendon. He was desolate.
Andrew faced demands to give one good reason why he should be allowed back in the group when he had rejected them twice before. He accused the group of failing to support him and they accused him of not being prepared to co-operate with the therapy.
Andrew then seemed to blow his chances when, distressed by Peter's predicament, he admitted he too had smoked cannabis over Christmas, thereby making himself liable to be expelled.
The intensity of emotions, the accusations and recriminations, and yet the sympathy and support, were overpowering. The meeting broke up after about 90 minutes leaving everyone (including me) drained. As it turned out, Peter escaped expulsion thanks to backing from the wing doctor. And although Andrew was allowed back into the group, he soon dropped out again for a third and final time. As he told the group: "When I came here my family had such high hopes. I can't stay in the therapy because I'm afraid of failing and letting them down."
THERE are more successes than failures at Grendon, according to Tim Newell, the Governor. The majority complete at least 18 months in therapy; but about 30 per cent do not, which he concedes is a high drop-out rate reflecting the toughness of the regime.
Grendon has the lowest rate of disciplinary offending in any establishment in its category and one of the lowest rates of all prisons in the country.
But the key to its reputation is not what happens inside, but what happens outside, afterwards - the reoffending rate of former inmates two years or more after release.
In a recent article, Eric Cullen, the prison's head of psychology, showed that the rate of reoffending for inmates who stayed in therapy at Grendon for 19 months or more fell significantly. His findings were confirmed by a study which followed up a sample of 150 inmates and found that of those who underwent less than 18 months in therapy, half were reconvicted after two years. But of those who were in therapy for 19 months or more, just 19 per cent reoffended. This compares with the national average of between 42 and 50 per cent for category B prisoners. In general, it appeared that the longer men stayed in therapy, the lower their rates of reoffending.
The follow-up research also confirmed Dr Cullen's finding that the reconviction rate of men who had been in therapy for 19 months or more, who were released into the community direct from Grendon, without supervision (as opposed to released to other prisons) fell to 20 per cent. With supervision, on parole, the rate fell to 10 per cent. Further follow-ups are planned.
Following the publication of this research, the Home Office is considering whether to convert two more prisons into communities like Grendon. The Prison Board has already accepted the idea in principle and a taskforce is investigating possible sites. If the Home Secretary finally decides to go ahead, it will be an enlightened step, particularly in the current law-and-order climate. The potential prize is a reduction in reoffending. The danger is that therapeutic regimes will attract criticism, not least from some victims of violent crime.
Further research published last week should provide Mr Howard with encouragement. A book detailing a seven-year study of Grendon came to the conclusion that it was a "paradigm of good prison practice, offering humane custody and effective treatment and control of prisoners".
Written by Elaine Genders from University College London and Elaine Player from King's College London, the book, Grendon: A Study of a Therapeutic Prison, concluded:
"It is possible to have a therapeutic prison which provides inmates with rehabilitative opportunities, without sliding inevitably and relentlessly into a state of tyranny which systematically denies any consideration of human rights."
Perhaps this will convince Mr Howard that it really is worth trying to do something to change the violent habits of a lifetime.
The names of all the inmates have been changed.