Deborah Orr: Child murder, prison suicides and the perversity of male behaviour

There is a dark aspect, in which control of the family, benign or aggresive, is a defining factor
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The Independent Online

Investigations are promised. Blame is to be apportioned. The Soham murderer Ian Huntley has for the second time managed a suicide attempt in prison, and suddenly there's an outpouring of concern about "procedure". In 2005 - by no means the most suicide-laden year of this nascent century - 78 people succeeded in their attempts to end their lives in jail, more than half of them on remand. During 12 particularly doleful days in June this year, a dozen people killed themselves while under the care of the prison service.

It's a pretty crushing indictment of the power of notoriety that this particular incident is considered so much more significant than the humdrum self-annihilation of people, including a significant number of children, whose crimes - more often than not merely alleged - are known only to those involved in them.

There's clearly a problem with "procedure" when, even though they are in a supposedly secure environment, men in prison are five times more likely than men on the outside to kill themselves. There's clearly a problem with "procedure" when this figure rises to a heart-aching 18 times more likely among 15- to 17-year-old boys. Actually, there's a problem with something more than just "procedure" when, inside or outside, men are far more likely to kill themselves than women. But more of that later.

Prison reform groups have been pointing out the reasons why prison suicide happens so regularly in Britain for years. Overcrowding, understaffing, lack of diagnosis of mental health problems, separation from family, too little constructive activity, a more punitive system for men than for women - the list is absolutely familiar.

Some, but by no means all of these, will have contributed to Huntley's recent escapade. But, as usual, the official line is to localise the problem and behave as if close examination of this individual scenario can only throw out a aberrant set of uniquely malfunctioning circumstances.

There's no denying that a very rare and highly perverse crime such as Huntley's is likely to promote a specialised kind of debate. Mark Leach, editor of the Prisons Handbook, for example, should be admired for cutting straight to the chase and suggesting that "It raises the question of whether people in his position facing the rest of his life in jail ought to be given the opportunity of a way out. I think it is a position that needs to be explored rather than simply pooh-poohed. It's something I would support being investigated."

Similar discussions greeted the Moors murderer Ian Brady's force-feeding during a hunger strike, with those most keen on the return of capital punishment also being those most appalled by the idea of offering those with no possibility of release a decisive role in the plotting of their state-owned destiny.

On the other hand, do many members of the public really feel that the solemnity of the criminal justice system has somehow been undermined by the fact that Fred West and Harold Shipman - both determined enough to use a home-made ligature rather than messing around with drugs or hunger strikes - are no longer serving at Her Majesty's pleasure? Apparently not. The BBC yesterday found itself inundated with contributions from members of the public who felt it would have been far preferable if Ian Huntley had not been resuscitated. A lifetime of highly bureaucratised retribution does not, to a lot of people, seem like a logical trade-off against unspeakable criminality.

Few people, it's safe to assume, would have been voicing their beliefs out of sympathy with Huntley. Rather, their concerns are purely operational. It is the time, the money and the futility of determinedly maintaining this useless, unwanted and affrontingly foul human life that motivates the impulse.

Interestingly, a few hours prior to Huntley's bid for oblivion, Newsnight was screening the pentultimate package in its series on "the best public services in the world". It reported that in Denmark sex offenders are treated with hormone therapies similar to the "chemical castration" that dropped years ago off the public agenda here. The scheme is defended even by the country's conservatives because it boasts a not unconvincing recidivism rate of zero per cent. This is not the time to point out that if Huntley's well-signposted proclivities had been picked up and treated in this fashion, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman would be living their lives in blissful obscurity today. But I'm going to do so anyway.

Yet rather more people, including his bereaved wife, have been able to find a certain degree of sympathy for John Hogan, who is awaiting trial in Greece for the murder of his son Liam, six, and the attempted murder of his daughter Mia, two. His attempt at joint suicide and child murder is becoming less and less unusual in this country.

Indeed, other British men have attempted child suicide and failed, only to find themselves on trial instead. At least one, Spencer Smith in May 2004, managed to kill himself in prison before trial (again by hanging). Leonard Hurst, who had recently broken up with his girlfriend, was found in the car where their daughter had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. He was jailed for five years for manslaughter in 2001.

Some years before, Wayne Skerton, whose marriage had also broken up, was discovered alive in his car, alongside one dead son and one who lived. He was jailed for four years for manslaughter. These are not notably punitive stretches, and sentencing patterns among those who do stand trial suggest that there is a certain degree of understanding as to the seriously disordered mental states of those who take such a course.

Yet it's dangerous to suggest that the recent prevalence of this sort of crime has a directly causal link to the disproportionate degree to which men are estranged from their children in partnership break-up. Rather, the strains that lead to such terrible acts are likley to have damaged the family relationship long before.

There is a dark aspect to the masculine behaviour whereby control of the family, whether expressed benignly or aggressively, is a defining factor. John Hogan, with a history of suicidal depression and of manic depression in his immediate family, felt his mastery over his family slipping away as his ability to cope with his job began to fail him.

Even if it was conducted in a moment of total red-mist madness, his desire to wipe out his children along with himself speaks of an assumption of control and possession that is not conductive to the negotiation of a modern collegiate family life. Huntley, to a much more extreme and corrupt degree, exhibited similar problems.

There are much, much wider "procedures" around perverse male behaviour to be looked into than Huntley's prison adventure. The dispiriting thing is that in general men continue to seem unwilling to undertake such painful self-examination.