(Artwork by Terry Stones)
London was on fire and I was in the back of a prison van, almost happy for the first time in weeks. The riots of 2011 had just begun and the city I was saying goodbye to was tearing itself to bits. But it wasn't the flames that raised a smile. After a month in high security conditions, I was finally on my way to the Promised Land: a medium security institution somewhere out in the English countryside.
I didn't know exactly where we were headed, but as we rolled through The Fens towards the east coast I imagined that our destination was going to be a place of great comfort and extraordinary natural beauty. It'd be the perfect environment to sit out the rest of my 16-month sentence, I thought, and finally get some reading done. I was 21, and a little naïve.
Perhaps I deserved what came next: the filthy, cramped cell with an unscreened toilet at the foot of the bed, the angry cellmate with violent diarrhoea and the troupe of rats that came to frolic and dance on the mountain of rubbish and rotting food outside my barred window.
As I began to doze off on my first night, a voice rumbled up from the bottom bunk. "I'm going to fucking bite your nose off, you cunt," it growled. Then the snoring began. My cellmate was a sleep talker.
Things quickly went from bad to worse. The next day, soon after doors were unlocked, a stranger stepped into our cell. At first I thought it was some sort of surreal prank; he looked so silly with a green pillowcase over his head, peering out through crudely-cut eyeholes like a half dressed Halloween ghost. Mind you, the five-inch blade he was clutching in his hand implied laughter would be inappropriate.
It was one of those moments. Everything stood still. And then, suddenly, it all moved at once. The knife was held to my cellmate's throat, the Rolex was off his wrist, the robber was gone. Revenge was swiftly executed.
All of this was far from relaxing. But that was just the way things seemed to go in that provincial prison. It was full of frustrated, angry people doing frustrating and angry things.
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The art class I signed up to was, by contrast, a daily oasis of calm. There were only about half a dozen of us dabbling in oils, drinking cups of tea, sharing biscuits and having mild disagreements about which radio station to listen to.
We were an odd bunch. There was Terry, a hippy-ish former armed robber who'd stuck up banks to pay for his rehab programme, and whose sketches illustrate this piece; Alan, grandfather, gypsy and, he claimed, international drug trafficker; Mustapha, a jolly fat man who seemed more interested in gambling scams than Gauguin; our supervisor, a sweet old retired art teacher called Paul who went around photographing manhole covers in his spare time; and Dave.
Dave wasn't like the rest of us. In fact, he wasn't really like anyone I'd ever known. He didn't seem like much at first: a tall, quiet man in his late fifties working on his own in the corner. During breaks, when most people went off to smoke in the toilets or under the stairs, he would sit on a little chair outside the classroom and read intently. It didn't seem like he needed anyone else in the world. He was completely self-contained, mysterious and strangely charismatic.
He was a puzzle I was determined to solve. He'd clearly been in for some time. A huge mural of his – depicting a picturesque village and its rat-infested sewer system – brightened up the communal area outside our classroom. But he was a tough nut to crack. Whenever I tried to find out how long he'd been in prison, and what had led him there, he'd go off on one: a long ramble about art, or a memory of a family holiday he took in the late 1950s, but never the answers to my questions.
One day, a classmate pulled me aside. "There's something you should see," he said. It was a photocopy of a page from a book: Evil Psychopaths: Dangerous and Deranged. There was Dave, AKA "The Psychopath". Suspected kill count: 11. MO: strangulation and stabbing. He was an actual bona fide axe murderer. He'd pinned an 84-year-old widow to the floor with a kitchen knife and pulverised a priest's head with a hatchet. He'd been in prison since 1975.
And there he was in the flesh, just a few metres away, humming softly to himself as he put the finishing touches to a cheery portrait of a Morris dancer caught mid-jig. It was hard to believe the same hand that was carefully applying strokes of sky-blue acrylic had once shaken the life out of harmless old ladies.
Over the weeks and months that followed, I tried – delicately – to unpick him. I had so many questions. Why had he killed all those people? How did he feel about it now? What awful things had happened to him to make him do it?
I didn't even get close. He remained as elusive as ever – and there were so many pairs of scissors and artist's scalpels lying around that it seemed unwise to push him. Clearly, if there's one thing four decades in prison teaches you, it's how to hide behind walls.
"Prisons are dark and evil places; sometimes, they can help to turn troubled kids into dark and evil people."
I've thought of him surprisingly often since then. When I was released, I looked up his case and learnt all about the alcoholic father, the childhood abuse, the live birds he pinned to the ground, the pet tortoise he set on fire, the early prison experiences, the many suicide attempts and the gruesome details of his eventual crimes.
Then, not so long ago, I spotted him in a gallery. It was an exhibition of inmate art, and one of the works – a portrait of Sherlock Holmes, blank-faced and inscrutable – was unmistakably his. What did it mean? Did it hint at unsolved crimes? Was it the work of a man hunting the murderer within? Or just something daubed to pass the time? It was another clue, and another riddle.
It's unlikely he'll ever be released – and if any human deserves to be behind bars, it's him. But even so, it was hard to reconcile the monster I read about with the person I'd spent occasional afternoons discussing Radio Four and sharing packets of Rich Teas. Perhaps the latter was a vision of the quiet, gentle person he could have been if society had stepped in and helped that scared and abused little boy all those years ago. Instead, he was institutionalised and hardened – and a killer was born.
As the UK government gets started on a £1 billion prison-building scheme, it's a story worth remembering. Prisons are dark and evil places; sometimes, they can help to turn troubled kids into dark and evil people.
I only glimpsed his scary side once. He crept up behind me while I was completely lost in my work, making a copy of a gory Otto Dix painting. It was all arterial spurts and mangled limbs, and I was laying the red on thick. A voice whispered in my ear: "Blood can be surprisingly pink, you know."
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