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.

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