Lifting the lid on special hospitals

For the past 25 years FRFI has consistently covered the struggle of prisoners in British gaols to expose and confront the brutality meted out against them. Even more brutal and vicious during this period has been the treatment of mental patients in the so-called ‘Special Hospitals’. In 1993 Louis Blom-Cooper QC published the report of his inquiry into the mistreatment of patients at Ashworth Special Hospital, recommending over 90 reforms to the system. In 1997, before all Blom-Cooper’s recommendations had been put in place, the government began the Fallon Inquiry and followed this in 2000 with the Tilt Report. These two reports resulted in a complete reversal of all Blom-Cooper had attempted, with the consequence that Special Hospitals are now more backward and brutal than ever. COLIN reports on the struggle of mental patients.


The Inquiry had heard evidence that patients were systematically beaten, sexually assaulted, raped, tortured and killed by the staff. Crimes covered up by successive governments, Labour and Tory alike. Such treatment is a matter of course in all Britain’s four Special Hospitals – Rampton, Broadmoor, Ashworth and Carstairs (Scotland) as it has always been in all closed institutions. You read on occasion of old folk beaten, neglected and sexually assaulted in residential homes. Ditto children in care. Violence against prisoners by prison staff... No-one then can feign surprise that psychiatric patients receive their share of brutality. You’ve only to remember that the Prison Officers Association was born in Broadmoor to get the picture.

The difference is that society takes exception to children and old people being abused, and periodically makes some effort to uncover such abuse and bring a few token prosecutions. Prisoners are less blessed by the fruits of society’s conscience. And mental patients not at all.

For decades people had tried through the courts and the occasional sympathetic journalist to expose the atrocities committed in the Specials, but with little success. In the 1970s and 1980s, even the digging up of patients murdered and buried in the grounds of Rampton and Broadmoor failed to raise enough outrage to force their closure.

Numerous inquiries have exposed the culture of institutionalised brutality, misogyny and racism, and Blom-Cooper reported on the Specials also being home grounds for neo-Nazis and recruiting grounds for the National Front. He called for the closure of the institutions, or, failing that, for the creation of a new and modern-day culture. For the first time, patients would have human rights, dignity – and protection from the atrocities that had been their lot since Victorian times.

It’s impossible to convey how hard won these reforms were. It really took decades. It took many people a great deal of hard work, and cost others a great deal of suffering. Blowing the whistle in such an environment will cost you dearly as an employee. As a patient, with no rights and no protection, it can cost you your life.

To expose a culture wherein helpless human beings are chained to hot radiators for hours, even days, to burn; are stripped naked, pinned down and beaten till they can no longer scream; and sat on till they stop breathing and die...that is one thing. But to expose the fact that government has always known the full extent of these crimes and has covered it all up time and again is to leave yourself alone to the mercy, not only of those criminals committing the atrocities, but of a frightened and vengeful government determined to protect itself.

Still, in 1993, these reforms were indeed won. Blom-Cooper called for open accountability at all levels, and patients to be given not only an environment safe from abuse, but which would also be treatment based. Treatment has never been a priority in the Specials, and the very idea that one could treat and heal people in such an environment is, of course, absurd.

What Blom-Cooper could not do, however, was sack the entire Special Hospital workforce and start again. The rot would stay.

And resentful rot it now was. No longer could these misogynist, racist, violent, raping, torturing, murdering neo-Nazis parade in their uniforms, nor abuse patients quite so blatantly. The hardliners therefore set about undermining the reforms and blocked change at every turn. Every recommendation had to be fought through in a process that took years, and was never completed.

The struggle of people suffering from psychiatric illness to simply be recognised as human beings goes back to the days of Bedlam and before. Whereas many other cultures fully accept people who are ill, industrialised countries have long come to prefer locking them away out of sight and mind, and asking no questions thereafter.

I was introduced to the system in 1990 by way of Ashworth. On my first day I saw one patient having his face smashed repeatedly against the concrete floor; another being dragged by the hair by two ‘nurses’ into a strip cell where he was beaten so badly he didn’t emerge for nearly a week, and sundry other examples of professional care which variously left the patients battered, bruised, humiliated and frightened.

I learned quickly enough that such violence, accompanied by hetero and homosexual rape and numerous forms of torture, was the norm. When I spoke out against it, calling in lawyers and instructing them to call in the police and the press, I found myself on the end of the so-called nurses’ boots. At bang-up each night they would pile into my cell and give me plenty, threaten my family and my life. I am not one to back away from a fight, no matter what my fear, and it came as a relief to them and me when the opportunity arose to boot me out into another unit on the site.

It was here that I learned I wasn’t the only one fighting but that there was already a public inquiry being fought for by some of the inmates. It was also here that I and a couple of mates extended that inquiry to cover the whole of Ashworth by noisily reporting the systematic torture of a patient whose only crime was to hit back those ‘nurses’ who hit him. His name was Geoffrey Steele and you can find the photographs of his battered body in Blom-Cooper’s report.

It would take chapters to describe the events following our disclosures – the way the torturers scuttled away and hid in the grounds like the cowards they are every time a lawyer or investigator came round; the way they always ganged up on the weaker witnesses after bang-up; the threats and intimidation that went on to silence those who would speak out, including some few staff, who had for their reward their cars paint-stripped, tyres slashed, house windows put through, petrol poured through their letter-boxes.

The net result was that, although Blom-Cooper got his reforms on the agenda, no prosecutions were ever made, nor were any of those with blood on their hands sacked, so the ship sailed on with the same old crew and the guilty got away with murder. Again.

More insulting was that, with Ashworth’s management decimated, positions were opened up which would allow these people into upper management, setting the scene for the downfall of all Blom-Cooper had set about achieving.

However, one of Blom-Cooper’s recommendations, that patients should have means to be heard, opened the way for the formation of patients’ councils and magazines. For us in Ashworth these two concessions would provide for the first time the means by which we could gather evidence of brutality and corruption and disseminate it across the country. Organisations such as MIND, SANE and Survivors Speak Out, MPs, bishops and lords all got regular updates of what was going on in Ashworth. As I ran the magazine, and the patients’ council shared my office, we could at last act effectively as a way of getting patients’ screams heard. Which of course put us in the firing line.

Our office also provided a way for the small minority of disenchanted staff to speak up anonymously. Notes would appear, or one of us would be pulled aside and told quietly of the latest beating or rape.

And the beatings did continue. Normally of those who were too ill or impaired to speak up for themselves. Or so ill and so long exposed to such treatment as to accept it as normal.

The rapes continued too. Most people in the Specials have been victims of violence, brutality and rape. Women in these places are usually there because of the sexual abuse they suffered in childhood and their teens. Often they have been abused for so long that they too accept it as a normal part of their lives, a fact fully exploited by their new rapists, the psychiatrists and ‘nurses’, who exercise complete control over them. And if a woman does resist, there are always drugs to shut her up. Few speak out – they are too frightened or they know they will just be ignored because they are, after all, mental patients.

It was clear from the outset to us on the magazine and council that we would all end up doing many more years for our efforts. People are sent to the Specials without limit of time and, prison transfers aside, the average stay is probably around 20 years (though many have done 30, 40, 50 years). All that is required to keep you there is a psychiatrist’s word that you may one day present a danger to yourself or to others. Argue with that. Therefore your sentence is easily increased should you make yourself unpopular by exposing the crimes of the very people who determine it.

And many gave their lives in this struggle:

• Chris – confined to solitary for months on end, with the usual kickings, adulterated food and general abuse, he spoke out at every opportunity, eventually attracting Channel 4 to make the documentary They call us nutters, for which he was never forgiven. Drugged out of his head by shrinks, imprisoned in solitary and brutalised by staff, knowing he’d never be free, Chris finally killed himself.

• Terry – warm, loving and generous, her childhood and teens one long horror story of horrendous sexual abuse, which continued at the hands of her so-called carers in Ashworth, she played a brave part in exposing the sufferings of female patients. Finally, she was put up for discharge, but her shrink blocked the move, told her he intended keeping her imprisoned for years to come and persecuted her, until she too killed herself.

• Bob – another childhood rape and abuse victim, who spent his life behind bars, fighting the system for justice, he died of a massive heart attack aged 37, as a result of the drugs forced on him.

• Rob – was simply beaten and suffocated to death. Provoked until he lost his rag, they piled on top of him, pinned him down, stuck a needleful of tranqs into him and sat on his chest for 20 minutes.

Others of us fared better inasmuch as we didn’t die. Instead we were harassed, threatened, intimidated, scorned, singled out, stitched up, bounced from ward to ward, assaulted – and of course written up as dangerous or subversive to prevent our discharge or transfer. The magazine was censored, blocked, raided and finally shut down. The council was ignored, by-passed, its members threatened, and finally it was disbanded.

People continue to be tormented, falsely imprisoned, brutalised, beaten, raped, driven to suicide, poisoned, suffocated and beaten to death. And the government and press continue to demonise mental patients. No-one counts the dead. And no-one seems to care. Those of us who have survived will continue to shout about our experiences, to expose the truth about the Specials and to offer our solidarity and support to those still incarcerated in them.

FRFI 175 October / November 2003

Prisoners to see Cat A reports

On 1 September the High Court ruled that high security Category A prisoners have a right under the Data Protection Act to obtain copies of the reports used to determine whether they should have their status lowered to Category B.

The challenge was brought by Alan Lord, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1981, who has been kept in top security conditions in revenge for his participation in the 1990 uprising at Strangeways prison in Manchester.

Category A prisoners are housed in a small number of prisons, never told when they are to be transferred, their movements and actions recorded, their visitors vetted by the police, and subject to countless other restrictions.

Every year each Category A prisoner’s status is reviewed either by the faceless ‘Category A Committee’ – mainly governors of high security prisons – or the even more faceless ‘Category A Team’ – civil servants who just rubber-stamp prison staff recommendations.

To put their case to the Committee/Team, prisoners received only a ‘gist’ (summary) of their reports; previous legal attempts to get the full reports having failed. In Alan Lord’s case, the judge found that the gist did not summarise the reports. While three of the six reports did say Alan should remain Category A, one gave no opinion, and two said he should be Category B. Yet the gist was written as though all agreed he should stay Category A. The judge described the system as Kafkaesque and ruled that Alan should be provided with the reports in full.

This means that in future, prisoners will receive the full reports, unless the Prison Service can genuinely argue that the information would compromise security if disclosed. And some prisoners, including Alan himself, have suddenly been re-classified as Category B!

Copies of the judgment are available from the Prisoners Advice Service, Unit 210 Hatton Square, 16 Baldwins Gardens, London EC1N 7RJ.

FRFI 175 October / November 2003


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