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I Once Met Ian Brady. By Robert Bathurst

Blog | By Robert Bathurst | Feb 26, 2024

In 1980, for one day only, I had an access-all-areas pass to Wormwood Scrubs Prison.

Martine Burnaby, in whose house I was lodging, was a prison visitor, a volunteer who would go into the jail and liaise with inmates, represent their concerns to the management and aim to settle disputes. No locked door was barred to her.

I was a law student – so she swung it with the Home Office that I could shadow her. It took just a phone call from her; no cumbersome checks or risk assessments.

Previously, Martine had taken her friend Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, later editor of the Sunday Telegraph, on one of her visits, during which they went into an isolation unit housing IRA inmates. A few days later, the very recognisable Perry received word from sources that he had been ‘put on the threat list’.

It wasn’t my first time in the Scrubs. I’d been to a whodunnit put on by the prisoners’ drama society. It was their third scheduled performance. The second had been cancelled because of a siege in B Wing. The actress Carolyn Courage had been brought in to play a part, appearing on stage in a skimpy nightdress. This caused a massive, show-stopping, chaotic uproar. The lead actor harangued the audience until they calmed down, threatening to walk off and cancel the rest of the show.

My previous experience of prison had been limited to Porridge. I remembered Fletcher taking the governor hostage in his office. He was rifling through all the drawers to see what he could find. Opening a filing cabinet, he discovered a decorated cake. ‘Ah, look,’ he laughed, ‘a cake in a file.’

I was concerned that the visit would be just a voyeuristic exercise, taking an exciting ride on the misfortune of others. Once inside, there was a palpable sense that I was in the sump of society and something must be done with the inmates during their sentence. But what surprised me was my sympathy for the world-weary, overworked prison officers, whose entire careers were spent in jail. Most prisoners get out within ten years.

Tailing Martine as we sailed through the prison was a fascinating, transformative experience. We met a twinkly-eyed Greek man who had said, in defence of his charge for murder, that it was only a small gun. The head of laundry, Mr Fusco, was in despair that inmates were throwing their pants out of the cell windows. A meek double murderer with a limp handshake couldn’t understand why he was Category A, kept in his cell for 23 hours a day.

In the hospital wing, cleaning the floor and with an officer in close attendance, was Ian Brady. Martine needed to see him to explain that the literature he had ordered was regarded as unsuitable and that it would not be provided.

I stood next to him. He was grey, angular and hollow-looking, with swept-back hair. He was grumpy at the news being given to him. The officer was by his side to protect him against attack, and the hospital wing was deemed the safest place to prevent that.

We went to the office of the governor, Mr Honey. He described Brady as manipulative and wholly unreconstructed, the most evil man ever in his charge. A difficult thing to quantify, but if anybody knew, Mr Honey did.

Robert Bathurst