The meanest act of the political year


By Kenneth Roy 

Hope is what does for us in the end. Mr Stimson found this to be true. Mr Stimson was the public school headmaster in John Cleese’s film ‘Clockwise’ who got hopelessly lost on the way to the conference. He could cope with the certain knowledge that he would not arrive in time to be crowned president, but then a smidgen of hope intruded; and when that happened, his instinct was to lie face down on the muddy path and howl like a dog. Despair is fine; we know where we are with despair. Hope is the killer.

From the age of 12, Jimmy Boyle had only a few months of freedom until he reached the age of 38. The rest of the time he spent in approved school, Borstal, and prison. For five and a half years he was held in solitary confinement in a cage measuring 3ft by 11. Often he was naked and smeared in his own shit – a pragmatic strategy for countering the threat, real or imagined, that the warders would burst into his cell and kick him with their polished boots or thrash him with their batons.

This was the Scottish prison system’s way of dealing with a violent man – and a violent man’s way of dealing with the system. As a policy of containment it worked well enough. No one ever claimed it was civilised.

‘It’s a funny thing about solitary,’ Jimmy said years later. ‘You think you’d want to see people. Not at all. I dreaded the door opening. I just wanted to be left alone.’ He was allowed one book a week, chosen by the prison officer who shoved the trolley around and simply dished out the next volume in line. The prisoner divided the weekly book into seven parts, a part for each day, keeping a page or two extra for a treat on Saturday night. One week he got lucky. They gave him ‘Crime and Punishment’.

So far I have told you a story about despair. Jimmy Boyle knew how to handle despair. As always hope was the tricky bit. He was unexpectedly transferred to the Barlinnie special unit, a therapeutic experiment for the treatment of long-term prisoners, where conditions were humane, the inmates had a say in the running of the establishment, and the prison officers wore white coats rather than uniforms. Jimmy Boyle, having left the cage in a state of terror at this prospect, convinced himself that the special unit was a hospital and that the plan was to certify everyone in it. It may have been the sight of those white coats.

Trust was built painfully slowly. A prison officer, Ken Murray, was opening parcels one day and handed Jimmy Boyle a pair of scissors. ‘Come,’ he said, ‘help me’. For Jimmy, this was unthinkable – to be handed a pair of scissors in prison. As the two of them opened the parcels together, Ken Murray said: ‘We’re all in the dark here. We’ve got to try to make this place work’.

The fact that the visitor visits, and is received at the other end, is a mark of our common humanity: a recognition that the prisoner is one of us and not a wild animal to be caged.

Jimmy stayed in the unit for eight years, producing sculpture and writing his best-selling book, ‘A Sense of Freedom’. He was then returned for the last two years of his minimum 15-year sentence – he served every second of it – to an ordinary prison. Why? You had better ask the Scottish Prison Service.

I make a brief appearance near the end of ‘A Sense of Freedom’ as the BBC journalist who turned up at the Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh (I was preparing a film about his rehabilitation) at an inconvenient moment a few days before the opening of an exhibition of his work. He had only just arrived himself – under escort on his first day release. Because the authorities knew that I would recognise him, he was promptly re-incarcerated – locked in a room – until I was safely gone. Unfortunately for the prisoner, I lingered. It couldn’t have been much of a day out for poor Jimmy.

By then I knew quite a lot about Jimmy Boyle, mostly through friends, both now dead, who visited him regularly. They were influential people and were immensely useful in encouraging his development as an artist and writer, but they also helped in all sorts of smaller, human ways. Listening to them over the years, I became acutely aware of the importance of the visitor in prison, and of the altruistic impulse that compels people to do this valuable work in society. The fact that the visitor visits, and is received at the other end, is a mark of our common humanity: a recognition that the prisoner is one of us and not a wild animal to be caged. But I am addressing an intelligent minority: there is no need to go on.

It amazes and shocks me that, four days before Christmas, I am having to write a piece defending the prison visiting service. Actually, there is no point in defending it, since the Scottish Government has inexplicably decided to abolish it in favour of some rather cold-sounding system of professional advocacy. Within days of this deplorable decision being released to a mostly indifferent world, the first minister in the company of his chum Alasdair Gray used the words ‘a passion for social justice’ to describe the figure in the Christmas card of his choice. One supposes that Mr Salmond intended to imply that he shared this passion for social justice. Some of his actions in office have demonstrated it. Yet he has just committed the meanest act of the political year, an act quite hostile to the idea of social justice.

Do I, then, lie face down on the muddy path with Mr Stimson and howl like a dog? I think not. You will remember that this is the natural response to hope. Despair keeps us on the straight and narrow, pacing our cage. The hope comes later or, in this case, not at all.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review