Conversations with the country’s most hated men

Daniel Kerrigan is a Christian working inside UK prisons. In this extract from his diary, he lifts the lid on his time with Britain’s most infamous criminals

Day One – Life on the inside 

It’s Tuesday in the north of England. I’ve finished my security training and am now about to get my keys from the secure cabinet. In fact, I don’t think I’ll use the word ‘secure’ again about this job, because everything is described as secure in prison. Absolutely everything. You’re not allowed phones in prisons – I get that, of course, but no liquids, sandwiches, ties, metal spoons, shoes of certain types, deodorants...the list goes on and on. Don’t bring it in. “Nothing in, nothing out” is one of many rules drummed into us during training. As I make my way through security before I am scanned, searched and questioned, such is my paranoia that I even wonder if someone has slipped something into one of my pockets on the way in – so I pat myself down, again, for the fifth time.  

I collect my keys, and I’m off through door after door before I get to where I want to be. Cameras everywhere. Dogs. CCTV. Lock the gate, check the gate, move on.  

I have a hot desk in one of the staff areas and I head there first to get acquainted with the computer system. It lists every male prisoner in the UK; their crimes, length of sentence, family, previous addresses, daily notes etc. Everything I could ever need to know about prisoner DF554TRY, John Smith, jailed for a week for not paying a parking fine, is listed in this system. 

So is every detail about ‘Britain’s worst’ – people described by the police as sickening, wicked, callous, depraved. It’s these people that I will be spending my time with. I open the computer programme and I see their faces; one of these prisoners, who is on the wing merely a few feet away from me, was on a TV documentary just last night. They’re now a part of my world, and I’m a part of theirs. Lock the gate, check the gate, move on. 

After a while at my desk I decide to go and explore. It doesn’t go terribly well because my inbuilt sense of direction is hopeless and always has been. I visit health care, which is depressing. For one thing, it’s darker than everywhere else, and for another, it stinks. I look into a special cell for those close to death and there’s a man there who looks as if he’s near the end. I look away to try to disguise the tears forming in my eyes.  

Leaving health care, I wander into workshops and try to look like I know what I’m doing (despite entering a store cupboard on one occasion and sending mops and buckets flying everywhere). Prisoners stare at me all the time, in every prison, every day. Are they scanning my face for signs of weakness, or are they just looking at me because they’re lost and need a friend? Serial killers will say: “Morning, Dan” and I’ll smile back, pretending not to be horrified. That’s part of the job – pretending. I’ll shake hands with people you might call sickening paedophiles, make coffee for serial rapists and have my meals served to me by gangland killers. That’s prison life.  

I am choosing to spend my time with a group of people for whom the phrase “throw away the key” has been used many times. Lock the gate, check the gate, move on.Friends will ask: “How was prison today?” and I’ll lie about what I did in order to protect the security of the prison system. I often debrief with my cats at the end of the day and tell them everything. Should my cats ever decide to write their memoirs, I may be in trouble. 

Day Two – Prison prayers 

I’m in a high-security prison today and it’s a huge sprawling place, almost like a university campus (except for the fences). Nobody has ever got out of here and they never will – it’s impossible. It’s bad enough trying to get in – and I’m allowed to be here! Once again I’m scanned and searched to a fairly invasive level and finally released so I can get to where I need to be. I’m running a lifer’s workshop today and the first chap I meet is a serial killer. Three women died at his hands, possibly more. He moans about prison conditions, but I don’t feel sorry for him, mainly because when I say hello and try to engage him in conversation, he ignores me. That’s how fickle I can be in this strange, strange world. 

I’m already learning that my ongoing battle isn’t necessarily my own safety, but how I live differently in this environment. At times I find myself alone walking through the prison and under my breath I whisper a prayer: “Jesus, you are Lord of this place”, partly to speak words of truth over the prison, partly as an act of praise and partly to subconsciously say: “If you don’t mind keeping your eye out for me, Lord, that would be appreciated.” 

Day Three – Try not to get stabbed 

I’m about to start a long piece of work at another Category A prison. It’s a trek to get here every Thursday, but that’s what I’ll be doing for the next few months and probably years. Get on the train at ungodly o’clock, arrive a little later, already hungry and trying not to be scared. Lock the gate, check the gate, move on. 

In this particular piece of work that will occupy me today, I’m learning from prison officers and others about the prison system. I learn two things: that it’s basically broken – not enough money, not enough officers, not enough facilities; and secondly, that this world is both strange and secretive. It’s not just because of who resides here and what they’ve done, but because of the acronyms and the complex nature of how Her Majesty’s Prison Service operates.  

I spend time at the prison on the wings, speaking to older prisoners. Some of them call me “Guv” because I have keys and a shirt and trousers. Some of them call me “Boss”. Some of them stare at me as if they’ve just discovered me under their shoe. I’m tough enough to not care if they like me or not. I’ve learned some good interpersonal skills in my working life – keep eye contact, don’t judge, have a faint smile on your face, but above all give the person you’re listening to your full attention. I can’t do that here and so I am re-learning interpersonal skills for prison. Maintain a bit of eye contact...keep calm...try not to get stabbed... 

Day Four – Britain's most hated man 

The prison I’ve been to today houses the most dangerous and hated men in the country. It’s a freezing cold morning as I pass through security again, after basically undressing to get access into the jail. Shoes off, belt off, ID off, pockets emptied. I’m scanned and searched again – it becomes so routine that you simply stand there with your arms out as someone feels in areas where they shouldn’t for things that you shouldn’t have in those areas. My geography fails me again as I get confused and turn in a very tight muddled circle as I try to work out where I am. 

Glancing to one side, I see G wing, where the high-profile prisoners live. Britain’s Worst... (fill in the blanks for a TV programme viewed by millions). I go onto G wing and start my day’s work. The high-profile offenders become like everyone else after a while, except that they are instantly recognisable. Or at least in theory they are – people age very quickly in prison. 

Fourteen years ago, the man I am alone with in the interview room right now was a regular on the daytime and evening news bulletins. He was sent to prison for at least 40 years for the murders of two young girls in Cambridgeshire. He presents himself as a polite and well-mannered individual, but for a while back then and maybe still now, he was the most hated man in the country. I knew I was going to be meeting him today, so I googled him last night and had a rummage around the internet, reading people’s comments. There were thousands of them, and not one was even remotely positive. Many of them were talking about how they’d like just half an hour with him, to “deal out some proper justice” ... 

At the time, he was interviewed on national TV as he was the caretaker at the school that the girls had attended. He appealed for anyone to come forward with information, all the time knowing that he was responsible for their deaths. I’m sitting face to face with Ian Huntley.  

I know exactly who he is and what he did – I remember the crimes very well – but when I sit down with him, I play dumb. “I don’t know what brought you here,” I lie, “but my concern is how to make life better for you while you are here,” which is true. I chat to Ian for an hour, a little bit about his offences – I don’t ask, but he volunteers some vague details about the area where he lived. Mainly, though, we talk about his experiences of the prison. He’s very polite and respectful, but I am aware that all the time he might be trying to manipulate me – just to discover a chink in my armour. I can’t give anything away. I don’t tell him I’m single, have cats or live in a bungalow. I find it terribly draining, pausing before each sentence, making sure that whatever I say, I don’t let Ian Huntley into my head. 

Ian Huntley knows that he’s going to be in prison for the rest of his life. I ask him if he has any hope. “Sometimes”, is his reply and I gently divert the conversation to my Christian faith and the God who forgives and redeems. I might as well have read him the shipping forecast for all of the excitement and response it generates, but I’m called to be faithful to the King and that’s all I can do. I wonder if there’s something wrong with me, because I feel for him. Honestly, I feel sorry for him. He’ll spend at least the next 40 years without being able to smell cut grass, go for a walk or paddle in the sea. But then he must have known what he did was so wicked and evil that it would result in a terrible change to his life. I call past his cell a week or two later and smile at him as he goes and gets his lunch. I won’t ever forget our encounter, but I think he already has. 

Day Five – Another high-profile encounter 

Today I find myself at another high-security establishment. I’m just attending an event this time – no great responsibility, particularly. I’m sitting in the chapel when the staff escort an elderly chap to the seat next to me. It’s an event about Black history, and I’m intrigued by who might be sitting around me. Nobody strikes me as particularly well known so I start chatting to this chap (he calls himself Peter). I don’t ask about his offences – it’s never a good thing to do and, to be honest, this time I don’t care. He looks unwell, with straggly hair and beard, distended stomach, very poor eyesight. I imagine he has been here a while. We chat about this and that, his experiences of life, the people that write to him. It’s quite a skill to do small talk with prisoners – you can’t talk about the weather, as they never see it. We fumble around vague conversations for a while.  

“What do you do, Dan?” he asks me, and I launch into a well-prepared and vague reply. I can’t even tell this stranger why I’m here. I can’t be open about my faith, so he can only ever know a pretend and small part of who I am. 

The event is interesting and finishes after about an hour. Peter reaches to shake my hand as he is shuffled off again by the staff. I notice that he has a very powerful grip for an older man and he squeezes my hand for just slightly too long.  

“I was pleased to meet you, Dan,” he says in his strong West Yorkshire accent and he looks at me for an uncomfortably long time. It’s a slightly alarming moment, magnified significantly when I read his name badge. I’m shaking hands with Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. 

Daniel Kerrigan is a Christian working within the prison sector. For security reasons some details in this article have been changed in order to comply with the Official Secrets Act, but every story and event is true

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