6 December 2021

Even monstrous cases such as Arthur’s must be met with professionalism, not vengeance


You may not remember the name Kaylee-Jade Priest, but don’t feel bad. Her murder at the hands of her mother in August last year has been somewhat overwritten by the national outrage over little Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. During the trial of yet another pair of wretched and sadistic narcissists – a parent and partner who used this defenceless girl as a punchbag – the jury learned, much like Arthur’s, that the force used to inflict the fatal blow on Kaylee-Jade by one or both of them was equivalent to her being hit by a car at 40 miles an hour.

Arthur’s body was found by pathologists to have 100 inflicted injuries, while Kaylee-Jade had previously suffered broken ribs, lower leg fractures and a broken sternum. Both mothers lied to emergency service workers about the trauma they inflicted. Both were egged on and encouraged in their sadism by male partners. The text exchanges that damn them in either case are banal in their depravity.

Why should people like this be permitted to live? It’s a question for another piece, but it’s certainly the case that social media has lit up with people, not normally fans of the death penalty, who would contemplate capital punishment for those convicted of killing children. Perhaps that nurturing and protective instinct, so hardwired into the vast majority of parents, overrides otherwise standard liberal views on the state taking lives in revenge.

I was put in mind of this dilemma when I wrote a short thread on Twitter yesterday about my experience as a young, inexperienced prison Governor at HMP Wandsworth in the late 90’s. I described an incident when staff and a fair few prisoners threatened mutiny over the imminent location of a notorious child killer and sexual predator in the prison’s Vulnerable Prisoner Unit (VPU). It provoked an instant reaction from hundreds of people.

The centre of the story is about how prison staff manage their own outrage and disgust when the criminal justice conveyor belt has finished with child killers and dumped them into custody where they will spend years of their lives. Prison staff have children in their lives too – they are mothers, fathers, aunties, godparents – and a huge amount of discretionary power behind the walls that could easily make the difference between the success or failure of a custodial lynch mob.

Many prison staff who work in VPUs are profoundly affected by the biographies of those they look after. As one correspondent who wears the uniform pointed out yesterday, ‘the public  are beginning to understand how physically violent our work is, what they don’t see is the mental toll of spending years up close and personal with monsters’. Sometimes, as in the case I recounted, the outrage is so great that people break. In the end, the officers I had to persuade to permit safe access for the prisoner carried out their duties, as they invariably do.

That murderer is still in the system. His name doesn’t matter and I won’t use it to underline a crucial point. The only argument I could come up with back in the late 90s for professionalism to win out is that it is what separates us from the people we locked up. Vengeance simply means that people who should have no control over anything or anybody ever again claim another victory. The more such people live in our heads and drag our humanity to their level, the more harm they inflict, the less they are forgotten and buried in the cement.

This isn’t some sort of philosophical happy-clappy. I’ve known people in uniform and their families psychologically destroyed by the power these predators have over others. Treating people like Arthur and Kaylee-Jade’s killers and the many others behind bars as human beings isn’t an abstract rebuke to their callousness, it’s a survival mechanism for people who do the jobs we can’t.

The legacy for Baby Peter, Victoria Climbié, Kaylee-Jade, Arthur and so many other children killed by inadequate degenerates must be a child protection system with the culture and resources that can intervene early, decisively and well. In the meantime spare a thought for the men and women in uniform in our prisons whose job it is to enforce the sentence of the court, whatever the mental cost, and turn these most heinous of perpetrators into nameless, powerless ghosts.

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.