Mark Leech: Give them enough rope - why lifers should be offered a dignified exit

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Harold Shipman died dangling from his cell bars in Wakefield prison on Tuesday, Britain's worst serial killer became the third suspected prison suicide of a year that was barely a fortnight old - and there has been another one since.

It's not that hard to imagine why he did it: he was facing the prospect of the next 30 years or more inside after David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, told him he would serve "whole life" - and I guess he concluded there was absolutely nothing to be had in his future that was worth the pain and anguish of going through even one more day.

It's a horrifying way for any human being to die, whatever they may have done. Locked alone inside a prison cell, drenched in the sweat of desperation, the determined ripping of the bed-sheets, the calculation of where exactly to hang the noose, the tightening of the knot and the last look around. Then slowly slumping down the cell wall, praying that the light of life will quickly choke itself out.

Does it have to be that terrible for the prisoner? Isn't there a way to avoid the lack of closure that a prison suicide can bring for the families of the convicted person's victims? Of course it's right that for those who commit the kind of chilling crimes which Shipman had the audacity to commit - and had the arrogance to believe he would get away with - life must mean exactly what it says. But we need to look at the true implications of imposing that kind of sanction on another human being, and, as Harry "Big H" MacKenney puts it, "allow everyone a dignified way out".

MacKenney is the only "whole lifer" ever to be released. He knows better than anyone what facing the rest of your life in prison actually means, and there were many times in the 24 years he spent in prison that he considered taking his own life.

"I would never have hanged myself, or jumped over the landing," he says. "The belief that one day I would prove my innocence prevented that. But there were points where I despaired so much, felt so alone, that had I been given some tablets or had the option of an injection, I would without doubt have taken it."

In December 1980 MacKenney was found guilty of four "contract killings" and sentenced to life. Later he was told by the home secretary that he would serve "whole life" and never be released. "It's devastating when they tell you, all the more so when you're innocent," MacKenney says. "I was given a bit of paper and in a stroke the rest of my life had been taken away. What I saw around me was it - for ever, finished."

Harry MacKenney was released by the Court of Appeal last month after they ruled that the evidence against him was "worthless". Claims were also made at the time that senior Metropolitan Police officers had kept quiet about finding one of his "victims" living under an assumed name three years after they said MacKenney had killed him.

For "whole life" prisoners who have no hope there has to be a more humane way out of life, where intent can be independently verified and clarity of thought confirmed, where individuals can say their "goodbyes" and with dignity check out of a life they no longer have the will to live.

I will leave the final words to my dear friend Colin Davies, a life-sentence prisoner who wrote them a week after being told he must serve another seven years in addition to the 14 he had already done - and a fortnight before he tragically put his words into action at Maidstone prison:

Death must be a fairer place

than this infernal strife,

'tis better dead and buried

than locked away for life.

Mark Leech is editor of "The Prisons Handbook" ( and publisher of "ConVerse", a monthly prison newsletter