During Her Majesty’s Pleasure

Ronan Bennett writes about the case of Terry McCluskie

In Well Street, Hackney, shortly before midnight on 11 February 1982, Terry McCluskie and his friend Raymond Reynolds picked a fight with a total stranger, Robert Ford, and stabbed him to death. Ford was 15 years old and had just taken his girl-friend home after spending an evening at a local Citizens’ Band radio club. McCluskie, also 15, and Reynolds, 14, had spent the evening drinking and were on their way to a chip shop when they ran into their victim. It is barely worth speaking of anything as tangible as motive in Robert Ford’s murder. Robbery may have been involved, though McCluskie has always denied that it was. Any part it did play was tangential. ‘We had a go at him to get some money,’ Reynolds told the police, ‘he gave me 10p and when I asked for more he said he didn’t have any and that’s when we started to stab him.’ There was also some mention of ‘dirty looks’, and these, real or imagined, probably did more to provoke the attackers. To describe the assault as ‘mindless’ might not be so wide of the mark: it was vicious and random – typical, some would say, of an entire spectrum of violence intrinsic to modern Britain.

Victim and assailants could have been typecast: Ford was blameless, a ‘promising’ lad; McCluskie and Reynolds were almost parodically delinquent. The young murderers were both from broken homes. Both had suffered physical abuse from stepfathers. At school they had histories of truancy and disruptive behaviour in class. They had experimented with glue-sniffing and drank heavily for their age, or any age: McCluskie reckoned he had had up to nine pints of lager and cider on the night of the murder, as well as a short. For someone of his years, Reynolds seems to have had fairly extensive experience of sex; while on remand he told a psychiatrist that he and McCluskie had simultaneously been having a relationship with a woman in her forties. Both had been in trouble with the law before: Reynolds first came before the courts, aged 13, on a charge of shoplifting; a year later, he was up for assault and possession of an air pistol. At the age of 11, McCluskie received a one-year conditional discharge from Hackney Juvenile Court for burglary.

On trial for murder at the Old Bailey in July 1982, McCluskie and Reynolds did not make a good impression. In the official papers their demeanour during the five-day hearing is described as ‘unattractive’. They swaggered, sniggered, talked loudly, pulled faces and made jokes. After they were convicted, the judge, Mr Justice Kenneth Jones, who sentenced them to be detained during Her Majesty’s Pleasure, wrote to the Home Secretary that ‘neither displayed any real remorse. Their evidence was obviously untruthful. I have no doubt that they both attacked the deceased ... their knives inflicting several wounds; it so happens that in all probability the first stab by McCluskie was the fatal wound.’ In his letter, Jones did not recommend any specific period of incarceration for the two boys: ‘I confine myself to expressing the hope that full account will be taken of the thoroughly wicked nature of the defendants’ conduct and the condign punishment which it richly merits when their release falls to be considered.’

McCluskie was sent to Aylesbury Prison, where staff were equally unimpressed with his behaviour. Prison officers noted that he liked to hang out with the ‘lunatic fringe’, that he treated staff with contempt, abused privileges and avoided work. The report to the Long-Term Training Board in May 1984 is littered with adjectives like ‘selfish’, ‘dominant’, ‘uncompromising’, ‘childish’, ‘resentful’, ‘angry’, ‘cocky’ – there are many more in the same vein. One officer wrote: ‘McCluskie is an arrogant and insolent youth who likes to believe that the Prison Service is being run for his personal needs only.’ Just prior to the report, the prisoner had attacked another inmate with a metal tray ‘without substantial provocation’. Those who saw him afterwards were concerned about the lack of any emotional response to what had happened. McCluskie was said to ‘revel in the status his sentence gives him’. A senior psychologist found him ‘self-justifying, superficial and self-centred’; the ‘only constructive suggestion’ he could make was that McCluskie be allowed to go on a painting and decorating course. The officer who concluded, ‘A very poor prospect for the future,’ summed up the general feeling, and has, on the face of it, been proved right: 15 years after he killed Robert Ford, Terry McCluskie remains in prison.

It is customary to think of long sentences and long stretches as Michael Howard’s contribution to British penal policy, but he is merely the latest in a long, if occasionally interrupted, line of social conservatives with a particular interest in correction. When, in October 1993, he announced to the Conservative Party Conference that ‘prison works’, the most striking thing about his speech was the familiarity of the rhetoric: tougher penalties, more prisons, harsher regimes have been advocated in this country since prison first started to replace the gallows as the dominant mode of punishment. But if Michael Howard is not new, he is certainly the most vigorous and successful exponent of the ‘Let ’Em Rot’ school of penology on this side of the Atlantic. With ideological encouragement from North America, the support of his Prime Minister and the acquiescence of the Labour Party, he has reinvigorated the arguments for the coercive and punitive aspects of sentencing, and made good his promise to Tory delegates not to flinch from sending people to prison. He has filled the country’s jails, built new ones, filled those, and is now building more. Within weeks, the prison population of England and Wales (the penal systems of Scotland and Northern Ireland are separate) will pass a record 60,000, an increase of a third since the Tories came to power. The cost does not deter the normally cost-conscious Government: the annual prison budget now stands at £1.5 billion, an average of £24,000 per prisoner. Last year the prison population went up by six thousand – a rate of increase never before seen in this country. At times, indeed, it was going up by a thousand a month, which, as Richard Tilt, the director general of the Prison Service, has pointed out, requires a new prison every three weeks to house the intake. If Howard’s Crime (Sentencing) Bill goes through Parliament, it will add between 10,000 and 30,000 prisoners to the present total. To meet the desperate shortage of cells, Tilt recently announced that the Resolution – what Tilt calls a ‘floating maritime facility’ and the rest of us call a prison ship – now anchored on the Hudson River, will make the journey across the Atlantic and be moored off Dorset to receive the first of its 400 inmates in March.

After being charged with Robert Ford’s murder, Terry McCluskie was sent, not to a remand centre with facilities for children, but to Brixton Prison. The only protection afforded him was his placement in the jail’s ‘hospital’ wing. Forget white-painted wards and caring nurses: prison ‘hospital’ wings are truly scary places, where the disturbed, the psychotic, the suicidal and the drug-frantic are warehoused. Care, typically, comes in tablet form, with inmates encouraged to take as much as they think they need – and more – to get through the day without breaking down or rearing up. And if the tablets don’t work there is always the boot and the stick. One of my earliest memories of Brixton Prison is being woken one evening by the sounds of a man crying in the yard. Climbing up to the bars of my cell in A ‘Seg’, I looked down to see a grey-haired prisoner, obviously blind or with seriously impaired sight, being escorted to the hospital wing. The two prison officers with him were entertaining themselves by urging their Alsatian dog to bark and snap at him. Jeered at from the windows of A wing, one of the officers shouted up: ‘Don’t waste your breath. He’s been putting it up little boys.’ Perhaps so, but it did seem, as one inmate in the breakfast queue remarked the following morning, ‘a bit out of order considering the old geezer’s eyes weren’t too kosher’. Fifteen-year-old McCluskie was locked up in the hospital wing for 23 hours a day, surrounded, in his words, ‘by screaming lunatics’. ‘Those times,’ he told me in a letter, ‘will for ever stick in my mind.’

Removed from Brixton, McCluskie went to Littleheath Lodge Remand Centre, where he was seen by Dr P. T. d’Orban, a consultant psychiatrist from the Royal Free Hospital. It is in the summary of Dr d’Orban’s pretrial report that one first finds anything like a favourable comment on McCluskie, anything to indicate that he was not all bad: ‘At interview’, the summary runs, McCluskie ‘presented as a friendly, polite young boy who seemed anxious to please’ (as the years went by, McCluskie’s file accumulated many more references to his ‘politeness’ and ‘manners’). The psychiatrist asked the prisoner about his home circumstances and concluded that he ‘had obviously been under some psychological stress as a result of the longstanding family discord’. The summary does not go into detail about the nature of this discord and certainly underplays the impact it had on McCluskie.

Terry McCluskie’s real name is John Terrence Woods. Barbara Woolvine, his mother, who grew up in Liverpool, left school early and by the time she was 16 was managing a café in the holiday town of South-port. Ms Woolvine describes Terry’s real father, Terry Woods, as ‘not a very dependable person’. The relationship did not long survive her son’s birth, and soon afterwards Ms Woolvine met and married David McCluskie, a plasterer and bricklayer. Terry took McCluskie’s name, though this was never regularised. The family moved to London after the strike at Cammell-Laird, when David McCluskie was finding work hard to come by; they settled into a council flat in Hackney and two more children were born, Caroline and Lena. The marriage was not a happy one. Ms Woolvine says of her husband: ‘He was a pig.’ In her account, David McCluskie was a violent man who resented Terry – though not because Terry wasn’t his child, for ‘he never bothered about his own kids either.’ Ms Woolvine remembers the young Terry as clinging and sickly – asthma was diagnosed and an inhaler and Ventolin tablets prescribed. The marriage continued to deteriorate as David McCluskie’s violent outbursts increased in ferocity and frequency. One day, her husband forced the three children to sit on the settee and watch while he held a knife to their mother. ‘This is what I’m going to do to your mother,’ he kept shouting. ‘This is what I’m going to do to her.’ He wasn’t even drunk, Ms Woolvine says, ‘so there was no excuse.’ The incident brought on an asthma attack in Terry, who by then was used to seeing the man he had only lately learned was not his natural father beating his mother. ‘Terry had seen a lot,’ Barbara Woolvine confirms. ‘All I can remember as a kid,’ McCluskie says, ‘were the scenes of my mum getting her head kicked in.’ After the incident with the knife, Barbara Woolvine packed a few clothes and left for Liverpool. She returned to London reluctantly – there was nothing in her home town – and the family moved into a flat in Clapton. By now, however, Terry was out of control, missing school, staying out late, hanging around pubs and splitting his time between his father, his mother and an aunt, coming and going much as he pleased.

Lack of parental supervision and the careering, reckless way he was allowed to live his life made getting into serious trouble with the law a strong possibility. McCluskie is the first to admit now that he had little sense of what he was doing. He was a tear-away. For the first few years of his incarceration – as those professionals who came into contact with him confirm – he had difficulty realising the full implications of having killed someone. I have spent long enough around prisoners to know that real remorse is a rare commodity. It is not that prisoners tend to be remorseful only about getting caught, though many are, but that by the time they have been through arrest, interrogation, remand, trial and the first few days of sentence, when there are massive mental adjustments to be made, there is no room for anything like contrition. What pity they had in reserve has been channelled in their own direction.

For a child on trial, plain lack of comprehension also contributes to the process of denial. A criminal trial is ordeal enough for adults; the defendant is an individual rendered impotent and futile, his future taken out of his control, his past the subject of unremitting and rarely sympathetic scrutiny, his present intolerable, and everything about his mind and body, from his height to his IQ, from the dandruff in his hair and the varicose veins in his legs to his sexual anxieties and feelings about his mother, can be fair game for men and women whose accents are different, whose histories, experiences, clothes, homes, expectations and lives are utterly at odds with his. There is nothing like a criminal trial for setting up feelings of class resentment: it is bad enough having your life picked over, but having it picked over by sneering toffs is very grim indeed. Paul Hill and Gerry Conlon have separately told me the same story of how, during their trial for the Guildford bombings, they used to stare at Sir Michael Havers QC, their prosecutor and chief tormentor. Havers had a nervous twitch and when the defendants succeeded in catching his eye they would imitate the tic. It was childish, silly, but the mimicry gave them some satisfaction, a small revenge on the man who was doing his best to send them to prison for the rest of their lives – and if Terry McCluskie and Raymond Reynolds, on trial for murder, with the experience of Brixton’s hospital wing etched in their memories, behaved ‘unattractively’ in court, it was to show that they had come through prison and that they would not be cowed by the men in wigs with the posh voices and big words. McCluskie’s memory of the trial is entirely to do with incident – his mother fainting, a group of tourists coming into the public gallery and gazing at him as if he were some kind of strange specimen. The proceedings themselves were mysterious to him, the arguments impenetrable. ‘I was terrified,’ he says. ‘I really had no grasp of what was happening. I never knew there was a life sentence to come. I just wanted the trial to end so I could get out of there ... When I was found guilty I was relieved to just get out of the court thinking I was going to a care home.’

When Richard Spence, who was to become McCluskie’s long-term probation officer, first saw his new client in Aylesbury Prison, some weeks after he had been convicted, he was concerned about McCluskie’s reaction to his sentence. ‘It seems,’ Spence wrote in his file, ‘he had been led to believe after the murder in February when he was taken into custody that he might be made the subject of a care order, and it seems that nobody had prepared Terry for the possibility of being ordered to be detained. He has come to realise that he may well be in prison for a number of years, perhaps as many as eight or nine, and I feel that it is important that he looks to the longer period of imprisonment rather than the possibility of only doing four or five years.’ What Spence did not know was that it had already been decided the prisoner would spend a lot longer in jail. Asked again to recommend a minimum period of imprisonment, Kenneth Jones, the trial judge, had suggested 12 years for McCluskie and his co-defendant. The Lord Chief Justice thought that nine to ten ‘would not be inappropriate’, but the then Home Secretary overruled the senior judge and agreed with Jones.

The Home Secretary’s powers in these kinds of case derive from the Children and Young Persons Act of 1933. Under section 53 (1) of the Act, children (defined in law as those between the ages of ten and 14) and young people (14 to 18) who are convicted of murder face a mandatory sentence of indeterminate imprisonment, commonly referred to as detention during Her Majesty’s Pleasure (HMP). The minimum period of detention (known as the tariff) is decided not by the courts, but by the Home Secretary, who, until very recently, also had the power to determine the actual date of release (this power has been affected by a European Court ruling this month in the case of Hussain and Singh and awaits further legal clarification; the present de facto arrangement is that the Parole Board sets the release date for prisoners sentenced to HMP). The arrangement by which a politician determines the tariff, without subsequent judicial control, is unknown elsewhere in Europe, and is now being challenged in the courts in the case of Venables and Thompson, the boys who, both aged ten, killed James Bulger and were sentenced to HMP. In that case, the trial judge recommended a tariff of eight years. The Lord Chief Justice raised it to ten. Michael Howard decided it should be 15. According to figures analysed by the pressure group Justice, juveniles and children convicted of murder in England and Wales serve longer periods in custody than elsewhere in Europe: 84 per cent will serve over ten years before release is even considered, and 20 per cent will serve over 15 years. There are in our prisons men in their forties who were convicted as juveniles. In Germany, by contrast, ten years is the maximum custodial sentence for anyone under 18 in all but the most extreme circumstances.

The British system was not always so severe. Over the years the pendulum has swung back and forth between the rehabilitative and the punitive, but the view that the purpose behind the imprisonment of juveniles was the protection of society and the rehabilitation of the child enjoyed widespread acceptance. Justice argues that when the sentence of detention during Her Majesty’s Pleasure was introduced, in 1908, it was non-punitive in intention, recognising that the offender’s youth and immaturity allowed for the possibility of growth and change. Indeterminate detention allowed the offender to be locked up until be was no longer thought to pose a danger. Nor was the idea to imprison juveniles for very long periods. Indeed, the indeterminate sentence, it was argued, was a ‘merciful’ option since its flexibility allowed the executive to order a release once the prisoner was judged to have reformed. The first HMP detainee, Sidney Clements, convicted in 1915 for the murder of his stepbrother, was released after two years of Borstal training.

The flexible and rehabilitative approach came under pressure after the speech Leon Brittan made to the Conservative Party Conference in 1983, when he was Home Secretary. In Brittan’s view too many prisoners were getting out too early; and as a result of his reforms, administrative procedures were introduced which emphasised the punitive element of section 53 (1). One of these was the tariff – a minimum period of imprisonment to satisfy the demand for ‘retribution and deterrence’. They created considerable confusion, not to say chaos, in the processes governing release for young people and adults serving indeterminate sentences – on the night of Brittan’s speech, lifers in open prisons, on their way out of the penal system, were rounded up and shipped back to closed conditions. Crucially, Brittan overlooked the distinction between those sentenced to ‘mandatory’ life (for murder, when the law requires the judge to pass a life sentence) and ‘discretionary’ life (for manslaughter, rape and other serious offences, when the judge has other options but decides on an indeterminate sentence). The result has been a stream of litigation in both the domestic and European courts, with frequent and bewildering changes in the rules governing the mechanisms for release.

By the time Leon Brittan delivered his speech, Terry McCluskie had been in prison for a year and a half. Richard Spence, his probation officer, made several visits during this period and to his eyes McCluskie, with his slang, swagger and glibness, was turning into another ‘con’, a man habituated to the rules, formal and informal, of prison life. Spence did not think the toughness went very deep. For one thing, the boy was obviously distressed that his stepfather had not been to see him since his arrest, and he kept asking Spence to try to find him. After a couple of years, David McCluskie did get in touch, only to disappear again. McCluskie’s mother Barbara Woolvine, on the other hand, was a regular and conscientious visitor. She still is, taking buses and trains to whichever prison they’ve moved her son on to: over the years she’s been to Aylesbury, Grendon Underwood, Highpoint, Way-land, Stocken, Channings Wood, Sudbury, Liverpool, Coldingley, Pentonville and Maid-stone. In the early years, McCluskie’s young sisters were not enthusiastic about making the long trips – ‘You know what kids are like’ – but their mother insisted: ‘I didn’t want them growing up and not knowing they had a brother.’ But though his mother was providing what support she could, McCluskie’s conduct in Aylesbury (which he describes as a ‘world where everything was hostile – like 600 school bullies all locked up together to bash each other up and see who could be the toughest’) continued to deteriorate. Richard Spence was beginning to despair of his chances of rehabilitation.

Then, in November 1984, McCluskie, who had just turned 18, was unexpectedly transferred to Grendon Underwood in Buckinghamshire, a penal institution unique in the prison system of England and Wales because of its emphasis on treatment and therapy. The effect on McCluskie was immediate. In a relaxed atmosphere, where officers and inmates were on first-name terms, McCluskie took part in meetings of special ‘lifer groups’, at which he was encouraged to talk about what he had done, about his aggression, his anger, his difficulties. Spence, who sat in on some of these meetings, was impressed; and pleased to hear positive reports from staff at Grendon. They told him that McCluskie was settling down well and contributing more than they had expected, particularly in view of the fact that he was the youngest prisoner there. Those who know McCluskie best agree that Grendon changed him. McCluskie himself says it was at Grendon that he was first able to think about what he had done and for the first time understand what it meant to be a murderer. Since then, as all his subsequent reports confirm, he has faced up to what he did and never sought to minimise his culpability. After two and a half years, it was felt that he had gone as far as he could in Grendon and he was transferred back to Aylesbury. A few months later, in December 1987, he was sent to Wayland, thereby completing his journey into the adult prison system. The following year, he had the first news that the Home Office was reviewing his case and received a vague indication of a date – possibly 1994 – when he might be considered for release.

Those who have never been in prison often find it hard to understand why prisoners can’t simply keep their heads down and stay out of trouble, interpreting failure to do so as proof of irredeemability. Thinking along these lines rarely takes account of the levels of stress, pain and frustration in jails, of the shattering impact of the simple denial of liberty, of the crushing boredom, or the rage-inducing pettiness of daily prison life. I think back on my own appearances at ‘adjudications’ – the courts the governors run to enforce their rules. These were nothing special, nothing dramatic, merely small reminders of the unavoidability of conflict in prison. I think, for example, of the day I finally got fed up with the prison officers cutting five or ten minutes off our hour-long exercise period. When they called us in, I continued to walk round in the circle, refusing every direct order to go inside until they bundled me through the door. Two weeks in segregation, if I remember rightly. Or I think of another friend in prison, another Terry – Terry Crockett – who described in a recent letter his transfer to Dartmoor from a prison in Kent:

I didn’t know I was leaving Swaleside until the morning I was actually going, so you can imagine the rush. As the crow flies, Dartmoor is quite far from London. Wait until you hear the route I took. Left Swaleside about 9 a.m. and was loaded into a sweatbox which was anything but, at this time of year, went to Elmley prison to drop someone off, then on to Downview Prison to pick someone up. Back in the sweatbox and on to Onley Prison in Rugby (or Coventry) to get a couple of inmates, all the way back down south to Wandsworth, spent the night in Wandsworth. Next morning, loaded into a sweatbox again and once again off to Onley Prison (which acts as a holding centre). Sat in a cell for about four hours and then loaded onto a coach about 7.30 p.m. After an hour or so, loaded back on the bus, this time to Exeter Prison, arrived at 9.20 p.m., didn’t even make my bed, just fell asleep on top of it. Next morning, on the bus, to Channings Wood in Somerset (I think) to drop one off. Finally, headed for Dartmoor, arrived here that afternoon fucking shattered ... In reception they said I couldn’t have any of my own clothing, not even my own towels. I wasn’t in a very good mood.

Friends who’ve come out in the last few years tell me that I wouldn’t recognise prison these days. It’s not, they assure me, like it was in the Seventies. It was no joke then, so what must it be like now? Perhaps last year’s record number of suicides – 64,14 of whom were under 21 – gives some indication. And yet there seems to be a widely shared perception, encouraged by the media (and not just the tabloid media), that prisoners are coddled and spoilt. One day last December, Radio 4’s World at One devoted its lead item to the fact that Christmas bonuses of up to £10 were to be paid to well-behaved prisoners. The decision had, predictably, been attacked by prison officers and, rather sadly, I thought, by Age Concern and Help the Aged. About a month later, a letter from Terry McCluskie arrived in the second post. I was again listening to the lunchtime news on Radio Four and again there was an item on prisons. I had reached a point in the letter when Terry was saying he ‘was sick of the crap you see daily in the media about this easy ride it’s supposed to be’. I put the letter aside when the story on the radio became intrusive. It was about Geoffrey Thomas, the 25-year-old prisoner awaiting trial for burglary, who had been restrained by the ankles and wrists and remained under 24-hour guard during the last three days of his life. Cardiff Prison, where Thomas had spent ten weeks on remand, had rejected repeated pleas from doctors to remove the chains. In the last stages of his illness, when Thomas’s ankles became swollen and the shackles bit into his flesh, prison officers had switched the chain from his legs to his wrists. Thomas was only unmanacled when his solicitor went to court and was granted emergency bail, three hours and 45 minutes before his client died, on 3 January. Even after the chain was removed, two prison officers remained on guard at Thomas’s bedside until his mother signed the final bail form. Thomas died 15 minutes later. After listening to the report I thought back to the vox pops the World at One had done on the Christmas bonus story. The interviewer had asked a man in the street what he thought about it: a disgrace, an outrage, people will be queuing up to go inside. Yes, of course they will.

Given the primitive realities of prison life, I never find it surprising that prisoners get into trouble. But although he ended up on governor’s report on several occasions, Terry McCluskie’s frustrations never boiled over into anything really serious. Nonetheless, as the years wore on, prison took an increasingly heavy toll. By 1990, after he had served more than eight years, he felt as though he had been buried and forgotten by the system. He had by then been transferred to Highpoint with the promise of getting onto a bricklaying course. On arrival, however, he was told there was a six-month waiting-list (a familiar feature as cuts in the training and education budget come into effect). He was then sent to Stocken, where there was nothing to do except sit in a cell all day. He was obsessed, like most lifers, with his next Lifer Review Board. He was shipped out to Channings Wood (it’s in Devon, not Somerset), where he waited, and waited. Visiting him towards the end of the year, Richard Spence noted that he was miserable and wondering about his next hearing. Shortly before Christmas 1990, he was informed that his Board had been arranged for 17 January. The possibility that he was a step closer to freedom made the next few weeks almost unbearable as he prepared himself to convince the authorities that he could safely be released. Then, three days before he was supposed to go before the Board, psyched up, his thoughts and energies trained in one direction, McCluskie was informed that the hearing had been cancelled and that he would be told in due course of a new date. In the event, he had to wait another three months.

After the review, the Parole Board recommended transfer to an open prison, and in December 1991 McCluskie arrived at Sudbury, where life-sentence prisoners are assessed before they are transferred to prerelease hostel and subsequently released on licence. Lifers tend to spend between two and three years at Sudbury, depending on tariff date and their conduct. At this stage, Terry McCluskie was, in all likelihood, a maximum of three years away from freedom. The regime was relaxed, by the standards he was used to. He was allowed to leave the prison, escorted by Richard Spence, to spend a day with his mother in nearby Derby. Spence was touched by watching mother and son together – they are very close – particularly when he overheard McCluskie ask his mother the names of the different fruits and vegetables he saw. However, McCluskie was finding time harder and harder to do, even in open prison. He wrote to Spence after being allowed out for the day to visit his Aunt Nell, who was dying: ‘Being a D Category prisoner now I’m trying as hard as I can to acclimatise myself to the fact that I may now actually be given the chance to prove myself – something I did yesterday – to a certain extent anyway. The only real part of the day for me was when I was with my aunt. I really did feel I had left her with something.’ The round-trip to the hospital took 14 hours. McCluskie could spend no more than one hour with his aunt. Her death shortly afterwards only reinforced his sense of life passing by. In spite of positive reports from the staff, he was not settling into the open conditions, and freedom was too tantalising. On 16 March 1992, McCluskie walked out of Sudbury and went on the run.

McCluskie insists that the 21 months he was unlawfully at large were the most constructive he has spent in his entire life: ‘They gave me,’ he says, ‘the only normal adult experiences I have ever had.’ Those experiences started in Cornwall, where McCluskie headed almost immediately after absconding – London was too dangerous. There he received shelter and money from people he had met in prison at Channings Wood. One night he went to a pub called the Shire Horse in St Ives, where he saw a girl. Her name was Lorna Rodgie. She was 19 and from Camden Town, and had gone to St Ives for the weekend with a girlfriend. Lorna took to the young man. He was 25, but unlike any 25-year-old she knew. ‘I thought he was mad,’ she says, ‘nice but mad. He was a bit hyperactive. He would say whatever was in his head, all excited, but he was making me laugh so I didn’t mind.’ He was persistent, at one point following her into the Ladies. When he couldn’t persuade her to move on somewhere else with him he got her work number in London. A couple of days later, McCluskie, who had followed Lorna up to London, rang and they met after work. He took her down to the West End. They went from bar to bar, club to club, jumping in and out of cabs. They went on until five or six the next morning. After that, McCluskie rang Lorna every day. ‘We just clicked,’ she says.

Lorna discovered the truth about Terry McCluskie’s situation bit by bit over a number of weeks. He told her early on that he had been in prison, but she did not find out that he was on the run until some time later. By then she was in love with him and it didn’t matter. The boy who killed Robert Ford was not the man she saw before her. She describes McCluskie as kind, well-mannered, gentle, funny, happy, full of life. ‘He was a better citizen than the rest of us,’ she says, ‘better than most Londoners. Terry would do anything for anybody. He talked to everybody. On the Tube, in the street. He was the kind who would help old ladies with their bags.’ Their first year together was an adventure, they were always together. Even when McCluskie got a job on a building site, cash in hand, he would ask Lorna to come and meet him during his lunchtime, much to the amusement of his workmates. She noticed little things about him: that he didn’t know how to handle money, how to pay for things, that he had no idea of how much things were worth. ‘When he went shopping he would come back with everything. He would ask if I wanted sweets and he’d come back with ten bars of chocolate.’ He wanted to try new things, products that hadn’t been around when he was a child. Lorna remembers the day he spotted raspberry Ribena. He bought several bottles. After a few weeks, the pair decided to move to Cornwall. Lorna gave up her job and they said their goodbyes to friends and family, whom they promised to invite down for holidays. They got on the coach with £500 or £600 – Lorna’s wages – and planned to rent a flat or a cottage. Unfortunately, they got through the money fast and were back in London, broke and embarrassed, within a couple of weeks.

After a while, as the pressures of the fugitive life mounted, the couple’s relationship started to be a little less of an adventure. They had nowhere to live and were always on the move. McCluskie’s opportunities for work were limited, money was a constant problem. Above all, he was dogged by the knowledge that at some point it was all going to come to a stop: he knew he was going back to prison. Before that happened McCluskie wanted to meet his real father, and travelled to Liverpool to find him. Their first meeting was not a success. Terry Woods was not much interested in knowing his son and McCluskie was disappointed in the man he had wondered about for so long. But unwilling to let it go, McCluskie went back to Liverpool, telling Lorna he had ‘to sort it out with his father’. At Christmas, the first he had had outside as an adult, Lorna came up to Liverpool. She had a miserable time. ‘It was horrible. We had no money, there were no presents, we didn’t even have a card for the people we were staying with. It was freezing. I was crying all the time.’ None of this mattered to McCluskie. ‘Terry said it was the best Christmas he’d ever had. He said it was the best because he’d met his dad and he had me.’

Even so, he and Lorna started to argue. Lorna says she didn’t realise it at the time, but McCluskie was starting to use drugs – cocaine and Ecstasy. He became moody and withdrawn. He started to disappear, first for days at a time, then weeks. She suspected there were other women – there were. During one of his disappearances, to see his grandmother in Liverpool, McCluskie was recognised by the police and arrested. The Bootle Times led with the story under the headline of ‘Gotcha! Murderer is recaptured in Marsh Lane’. ‘A combined CID and uniformed police operation led to the arrest of a convicted murderer – outside Bootle police station on Monday ... Detective Inspector Julieanne Wallace-Jones said: McCluskie gave no trouble. McCluskie had been staying in the Bootle area since Christmas, apparently looking after his elderly grandmother, who has been ill.’ McCluskie spent some weeks in Walton jail, not one of the British penal system’s finest, and contacted Richard Spence, asking him to get in touch with Lorna. She told Spence she wasn’t sure she wanted to see McCluskie. But then she started to feel guilty. ‘When I saw him in Walton I knew I couldn’t desert him. It was the worst sight I’d ever seen. He looked as if his whole world had ended.’ They resumed their relationship and Lorna got used to the dismal routine of prison visiting.

In June 1994, McCluskie was re-allocated to Coldingley, a closed prison. In October, he was allowed out for a day to visit his mother, escorted by two prison officers. The party went first to Spence’s office, then on to see Caroline, one of McCluskie’s sisters, at her flat. Lorna joined him there. She was late because she was so nervous: she knew McCluskie had decided to abscond again. She remembers walking into Caroline’s kitchen and bursting into tears. ‘It was just too much to see him in a chair eating and I burst out sobbing.’ In spite of her nerves, Lorna says the atmosphere was pleasant: ‘The screws were sitting, they were having a laugh, there was a woman one. Caroline’s kids were running around. It was really nice.’ McCluskie and Lorna were able to slip away unnoticed. As they ran from the flat, Caroline’s children waved at them and shouted: ‘Bye, Terry.’ McCluskie and Lorna ran, but they had nowhere to go to, no money, no car, no plan. They spent the day walking around town. Exhausted, they could think of nothing better than going to McCluskie’s other sister, Lena, and spending the night at her flat. The next day they returned to Caroline’s, where McCluskie met his mother.

The following morning the police arrived. Lorna remembers the banging on the door:

We thought it was someone playing a joke. But when we looked out there was loads of police everywhere. Caroline was running around panicking. We were just running round the flat not knowing what to do. You know when you just don’t know what to do? He went to get out the back window but there were police there. He hid under the kids’ bunk-bed and I put blankets and things in front of it. I felt so sorry for him. This policeman came in and said: Come out, son. Terry looked devastated.

McCluskie cannot explain why he absconded the second time. He knows it was the most foolish thing he’s done since going into prison. All he can say is that he missed Lorna. Spence, informed that his client was being held at Stoke Newington police station, wrote in the file: ‘I suppose he is like a caged bird – given the opportunity he flies off. All very sad.’

Two years later, McCluskie came up for a parole hearing. Supported by Lorna, his mother, Spence and Kate Akester, a solicitor at Justice with extensive experience of representing life prisoners here and in the European Court, he petitioned for release. Shortly before the hearing, he was interviewed by Ms J. Kinsley, a member of the Parole Board. She described him as ‘sad’ and finding ‘prison increasingly hard to bear’, observations supported by McCluskie’s own letter to the Board. The cocky, insolent kid of 15 years ago is now a man who just cannot do any more prison.

 Dear Sir,

  I would ask the Parole Board to release me for the following reasons: Firstly fully consider my age and circumstances when my offence was committed. I am not a risk and have served 13 years so satisfying society in terms of retribution and deterrence ... I am nearly 30 years of age and I will never be that mixed-up 15-year-old again. I just want to go home and put my life back together. I have a fiancée who loves me very much. I feel that if you don’t release me my relationship with her will suffer greatly. I care for her very much and find it so hard not being able to do anything to make it better for her. She has waited now for nearly 3 years. Please let me go home, I have been punished enough. I am deeply sorry for the terrible crime I committed as a young boy, please help me to get my life back on the right track. There is no question of risk ... I disagree with Mrs Kingsleys [sic] opinion that I have a chip on my shoulder, I do not but I am feeling very sad. I miss my fiancée so very much and my family. 15 years have gone by and they have all suffered greatly along with me. This year has been so hard for me and I am finding prison so hard now that I am getting older ... Daily I find prison an upward struggle and it is becoming so hard to cope with it knowing that the people I love and care for are suffering so much. I got beaten up at Wayland pretty badly, needing 2 stitches to a face wound. I pleaded guilty to fighting on Governor’s advice to save me being shipped out as I would have had to inform against my attacker ... I have only been on report for fighting on this occasion, the first since 1987. I am not a risk and I will attend any courses, do any groups, anything to assure the Parole Board I am not a risk ... I am not a risk and while I know being UAL [unlawfully at large] for nearly 2 years didn’t help me, it did show my intentions. I worked very hard sometimes for as little as £20 a day ... please, I beg you with all my heart and soul and I pray to God that you can show me mercy and release me. I love Lorna so much and it hurts me to see her suffering as she is at this very moment. She is such a gentle, kind loving person who ... showed me I can be a better person which 1 am now. Please let me go home to her and my family. I beg you.

   PS I have a job and a home to go to on release and a large supportive family.

The Parole Board rejected McCluskie’s petition. Shortly afterwards, Lorna, who could take no more, left him. He took her decision well, but asked her, as she was leaving the visiting-room, not to give any sign that anything was wrong. ‘Terry has this thing about his pride,’ Lorna says. But as they parted she couldn’t hold back the tears. ‘Terry was angry because all the screws would know.’ McCluskie used to ring her from the prison every evening at 7 p.m. Wherever she was, Lorna recalls, she would hurry home, for much of the time a hostel for the call. Once, when a girl in the hostel was on the phone and ignored her requests to come off, Lorna went to her room, threw herself on the bed and started to pull out her hair. She feels terribly guilty now, but after three years she needs a life of her own. Her female friends are married with children. ‘I don’t see them much any more. All I had to talk about was what prison Terry was in now – which isn’t very exciting, is it?’ She cannot understand why McCluskie is not free. ‘I don’t know what they’re doing with him,’ she says. ‘It’s so obvious he’s not a risk.’

‘No civilised society regards children as accountable for their actions to the same extent as adults,’ Lord Lowry said in one of his judgments, but in these days of moral panic, an obvious precept of this kind is easily reversed. The Home Secretary appears to believe that children are more culpable than adults, that youth is not a factor mitigating criminal offence. On the contrary. The present alarm over the little monsters bred in council flats by welfare-addicted parents ignores the fact that over the last 15 years for which figures are available the number of juveniles convicted of murder or manslaughter has dropped from an average of 26 cases per year between 1979 and 1983 to 20 between 1989 and 1993.

In the visitor’s ‘centre’, a dismal room with a dirty floor and plastic chairs, at Maid-stone Prison, a prison officer summons those on ‘enhanced visits’. The waiting-room falls silent as two women, eyes down, get up quickly and make their embarrassed way to the gate. After they have gone, the waiting women glance at each other and smile knowingly. What’s an enhanced visit, I ask a woman next to me. ‘It’s when they put you in a box and you can do what you like.’ It was not something they had in my day. The visiting-room itself is familiar, though. All around us, men sit with their wives and girlfriends. There are hands on thighs an inch or two up the skirt, there are knees wedged in groins, fingers, half hidden by coats and jackets, on breasts. I recall this scene very well – the minutes at the table with my girlfriend, the kisses and the secret fondling, and the promises. And I remember, too, what it was like to be told that it was over, the feeling of desolation and helplessness. McCluskie’s mother says Terry and Lorna are still besotted with each other, even though she’s left him. I see a tall, slim, dark-haired man. At 30, there is a still a boyish quality to him. He is open, polite, defeated. He talks a lot, about his case, about his former girlfriend. ‘I used to love watching Lorna. I could watch her for hours, doing girlie things. She was so delicate, so fragile.’ He puts in the days as best he can. He’s not a reader, he says his mind wanders (Spence thinks he’s probably a little dyslexic). He likes to cook for a group of prisoners: ‘It puts in a couple of hours at night.’ He is pinning his hopes on an oral hearing, arranged for April, at which he will again, with the help of Akester and Spence, petition the Parole Board for release. He’s stayed off drugs and out of trouble over the last year, and now, having completed his tariff, the only grounds on which he can be kept inside are that he is a risk to society.

There are compassionate arguments for letting people like Terry McCluskie out of jail. They probably don’t carry much weight in the present climate. But there is also a straightforward and obvious utilitarian argument: the longer we keep prisoners like him in, the more bitter and dangerous they become. Will Terry McCluskie be a better person in a year’s time? In five years? Or in ten?