Inside Broadmoor: Home To Britain's Most Violent Criminals

Crime novelist Peter James visits the notorious psychiatric ward

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I recently had a drink in a pub with a man who, at the age of 25, had decided to bring his inheritance forward a few years by bludgeoning to death his parents and 10-year-old brother with a baseball bat, and making it look like a burglary gone wrong. I asked him if he felt any remorse. He regretted what he had done, he told me. But I had the distinct impression that was purely because he regretted having been caught and spending the past twenty-three years in jail. 

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For over twenty-five years, as part of my research for my novels, I’ve been meeting many killers face to face, both inside and out of prison. Some have had a palpable reek of evil about them and have scared me to just be in their presence. But nothing has scared me as much, nor remained me so long, as a day I spent at Broadmoor over fifteen years ago, as part of my research for my crime thrillers. Broadmoor is the UK’s best known high-security psychiatric hospital and the criteria for being admitted there, at the time of my visit, was to be violently criminally insane.

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The building itself is eerie. A vast Victorian red-brick compound stretching for over a quarter of a mile along a Berkshire hill-top, with watchtowers around the perimeter. It had taken me nearly two years of requests and vetting to finally be allowed in and my guide for the day was the residential chaplain, an immensely human and charming man.  As with all prisons, all doors throughout are doubled-up, like an airlock system. Staff unlock one door, enter, lock it behind them and unlock the next. As we entered, was surprised the chaplain had his keys on a leather thong and asked him why he did not have them on a chain, which would have been more secure. “Ah,’ he said, ‘We used to do that. But one day an inmate ripped one of our members of staff in half. Now we use something that would break.”

That set the tone for what was to follow. My first visit on the tour was to their Assessment Room – a prefabricated single-storey building in the grounds, where new inmates are put, under CCTV observation, to assess their social skills and general behaviour. There were about thirty-five inmates, males and females, sitting on long L-shaped bench seat against the walls, some reading, some doing various arts and crafts. All stopped and just stared at me as I entered.  The chaplain locked the double door behind us and introduced me to the two officers in there. The inmates continued to stare in silence. Then a woman in her early thirties, in a red jump-suit, held up a pair of knitting needles (I was astonished she had them) and began clacking them together, staring at me intently and with a menacing grin. A man sitting next to her suddenly yell at her, “Eff you, you effing bitch!”  She then shouted a barrage of swear words back at him.  One of the officers turned to me and said, ‘Don’t mind them, sir, they don’t like each other very much!’

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Silence returned to the room. Every eyeball was fixed on me, apart from a man in a business suit, on the other side of the room, intently painting an angel on a Christmas card he was creating – it was early December. Then a character who could have come straight out of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest appeared with a mop and pail and said to me, in a rather simple, slurry voice, ‘Have you come to help me slop out the bogs? You’ll like it in there. They’re nice!’

As the officer explained to him that I was a writer, doing research, the man painting the angel looked up at the chaplain and said, in a very gentle, almost pleading voice, “I’ve lost my state of grace again, haven’t I?” ‘It will come back,’ the chaplain assured him. “Do you really think so?’ he asked again. “Yes, yes it will.”

Again the room was silent, with everyone just staring at me, some with curiosity, some with open hostility. All I could think was that there were thirty-five of them, just two officers and the chaplain and me. If it kicked off we wouldn’t stand a chance…  When we finally got back outside, into the winter sunshine, I was shaking. I turned to the chaplain and asked what had brought the meek looking businessman into Broadmoor. “Oh,” he replied, “He decided he wanted to be a woman, so he murdered his girlfriend, hacked off her breasts, and sewed them onto his own chest.”

As we continued our tour, I asked the chaplain if he believed that evil existed.  He replied that, at that time, without exception, all of the inmates fitted into one or two categories – they were either schizophrenics or psychopaths. Schizophrenics he explained were born with a chemical imbalance in the brain, leading to a wide range of delusion, such as hearing voices.  Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper was there then and still is.  His starting point was when he heard voices from God telling him to go and kill prostitutes.  The chaplain told me that schizophrenia could be treated with medication, and that over fifty percent of the schizophrenic inmates could, in time, go back into the community and live normal lives, provided they remained on their medication permanently.  But psychopaths were very different.

Much research has been done on psychopathy – or sociopathy - as it is alternatively and less sinisterly called. Essentially, the chaplain told me that a psychopath is someone who is born hard-wired different to the majority of us – someone who has a lack of empathy.  Evidence of this can present at a very early age – the young psychopath child is capable of stealing his or her best friend’s favourite toy, with no feeling of guilt or remorse. How that child develops is going to be in some considerable part, down to the parenting he or she receives. Brought up in a kind, loving, nurturing family that child can grow up to become a captain of industry, a top politician and often, as we have seen, leader of a nation. But brought up in an abusive or broken family where the moral boundaries are either non-existent or warped, that sociopathic child can then embark down a dangerous path. Adolph Hitler is perhaps a classic example – a bullying father who refused to let him do which he really wanted, which was to become an artist, may have set him off the terrible spiral into evil that his life took.

I’ve been to very many prisons, often to help inmates with literacy in my work for the charity The Reading Agency, and sometimes to meet characters for research for my books. The Victorian ones are the worst: gloomy, sinister, cold feeling. And in almost every prison I’ve been to, there is a certain look that prisoners have – a pallor that comes partly from the drugs or heavy smoking inside, lack of fresh air, and the air of defeat about so many. One thing that struck me about Broadmoor was how different, and just how very normal so many of the inmates there looked.  I attended the post-mortem a few years ago of a seventy-year-old mentally ill man who had dived headfirst from an eight-storey building.  As the pathologist cut into his artery he exclaimed to me that there was no evidence at all of calcification. In almost any ordinary person of that age there would have been some, from life’s stresses, but he said that often the mentally ill feel no stress. Perhaps that was one reason so many of the inmates at Broadmoor looked so different.

There were light moments in the darkness of that day. The most memorable was being taken into the chapel. It had the most extraordinary atmosphere of tranquillity, in contrast to the rest of the place. It was decorated for Christmas and on a shelf sat a small teddy bear, with a dog-collar bearing the words, THE REVEREND TED BEAR. An inmate had made it, the chaplain explained. Even in a place as grim as this institution and the horrors of what many of its inmates have done, it is possible I realised, for a light to shine in the darkness.

You Are Dead by Peter James is published in hardback on 21 May (Macmillan, £20).