It was watching the latest film on the Krays (ludicrously called Legend) that brought it all back. I remembered not so much the deliberate and casual violence which underlay the swinging Sixties in Britain but something more personal. A recurrent question I have asked since those days is whether I personally could have prevented one of the Kray murders.
Let me go back to 1966. I was a journalist on the Times commissioned to write two articles on British prisons. The Prison Department had directed me to the new secure prison of Albany on the Isle of Wight and to the psychiatric work being done at Grendon Underwood. But I wanted to contrast this with prison life in an older and more typical prison.
What better place to go than Dartmoor? It had been designed for prisoners from the Napoleonic wars but it remained in commission — as it does today. I checked into a hotel in Princetown and early next morning presented myself at the prison gates. There followed a tour of the blocks and some discussion on policy. Then came the lunch hour.
It was obvious that the prison authorities did not know what to do with me, so I volunteered to leave and then return after an hour or so. I had noticed that some way away from the prison some cars were parked and tourists with binoculars were craning to see inside the walls, hoping for some glimpse of the imprisoned. Perhaps they also hoped for the arrows and stripes of the Victorian era.
Parking myself in a gateway to one of the fields some way from the prison, I ate my sandwich and started to scribble some words of ‘colour’ to condemn the tourist intrusion, when suddenly I became aware that I was not alone. Working in the field behind me was a giant of a man — tall and broad — entirely alone and unsupervised. He seemed completely out of place. His presence was unexplained.
When I returned to the prison I sat down with the governor, Dennis Malone, and one or two of his staff and said, ‘There was this giant of a man working in the field out there.’
The effect of the remark was electric. ‘For goodness sake don’t report that,’ one of the senior staff said. ‘They used to call him the mad axeman. If it gets out that we are allowing him to work outside then we will have to bring him back in.’
No journalist likes being told that he ‘cannot’ report something that is self-evidently true, so I tried to probe more deeply. The prisoner working in the fields was Frank Mitchell. He had a long string of convictions behind him. He was currently serving a life sentence for robbery with violence and had earned his nickname when, some time earlier, he threatened a couple with an axe while on the run.
Why on earth did they let him roam outside the prison walls? Mitchell, said the governor, had spent most of his 29 years either in prison or locked up in some other kind of institution. No one had ever tried to understand him, let alone retrain him.
Even more importantly, he said, using a phrase that I remember to this day, the view of the prison staff was that ‘the fires had burnt out’. The men who came to this view were not wet-behind-the-ears social workers but men with years of experience of dealing with some of the toughest inmates in the British penal system. Their view was that, as Mitchell had grown older, his aggression had reduced.
As far as I was concerned, I had a classic journalistic dilemma. I could follow the doctrine that a journalist’s duty is to report and to expose. If the information were true, no reporter need concern himself about the consequences. In this case it was also of course a good story and its publication would certainly have attracted Fleet Street’s crime reporters to this bleak and lonely spot. It required no skill to imagine the headlines.
On the other hand, the judgment of the men who knew him best was that he was now responding to the more generous way he was being treated. He had been working outside the prison for some time without incident. My report would send him not only back behind bars but undo all the work that had been done in his time at Dartmoor. Did I, on a day-visit to the prison, have the right to torpedo the efforts that had been made to serve both Mitchell and the long-term interests of the public generally? I decided to keep quiet.
As history would shortly show, ‘publish and be damned’ would have been a safer course. Ten weeks after my visit, on 12 December 1966, Mitchell escaped. It could not have been easier. All that was required were accomplices with a car and for Mitchell to step into it. The car drove away (perhaps from the field where I had first seen him working) and his absence was not discovered for another four hours, by which time he was in London or very near it.
The escape, it later transpired, had been on the order of the Krays. According to John Pearson, who has written a comprehensive account of their careers, The Profession of Violence, Mitchell was driven to a basement flat in the East End, where he remained.
My side involvement in the case continued a week later, when we at the Times together with the Daily Mirror received letters from Mitchell. They were taken away by Scotland Yard and authenticated by a thumb print in the corner of the page he had written. In a laboured hand he set out his case in words that were probably dictated to him.
‘Sir,’ he wrote. ‘The reason for my absence from Dartmoor was to bring to the Notice of my unhappy plight, to be truthful, I am asking for a possible date of release, from the age of 9 I have not been completely free, always under some act or other.
‘Sir, I ask you, where is the fairness of this, I am not a murderer or sex maniac nor do I think I am a danger to the public. I think I have been more than punished for the wrongs I have done.
‘I am ready to give myself up if I can have something to look forward to.’
Sadly for Mitchell it was an utterly naive request. No Home Secretary was ever likely to agree to such a deal — even less the Home Secretary at the time, Roy Jenkins, who was in the midst of a major prison row following the all-too-easy escape of the Russian spy George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs.
Then there was silence. There were rumours, of course, but nothing definite until a couple of years later, when the Kray twins were put on trial at the Old Bailey for Mitchell’s murder. The prosecution had the evidence in court of one of the self-confessed collaborators, who said that Mitchell was becoming an embarrassment to the Krays, who found themselves in the middle of a nationwide police hunt. They had ordered his murder on Christmas Eve, only days after his escape.
The fatal flaw in the prosecution case was that there was no collaboration of his story and no body had been found — although everyone believed and still believes that Frank Mitchell was murdered on the orders of the psychopathic twins who terrorised east London for years before their overdue downfall. The Krays were acquitted of murder, but one of the twins was convicted for his part in Mitchell’s escape.
So what would have happened had I reported in 1966 that Frank Mitchell had been working alone and unsupervised in the fields outside Dartmoor? The report would have had the obvious consequence that Mitchell would have been put back behind bars and his escape foiled. Less obvious would have been the impact upon Mitchell himself. The theory that the ‘fires had burnt out’ would have been tested to the limit.
Everyone is agreed that the one thing Mitchell hated most was the containment of prison. John Pearson quotes him as saying in his brief stay between his escape and his murder, ‘I would kill anyone rather than go back to prison.’
Many journalists will say that it is not the reporter’s job to get involved in the rights and wrongs of a case in the way I did. I can only speak for myself. I obviously regret Mitchell’s murder but, given the same evidence that I heard in Dartmoor prison in 1966, I would do the same again today. The only men who had ever put their mind to how to help Frank Mitchell were the staff in this bleak Victorian prison. They wanted to give him a chance. It was probably the only genuine friendship that he had ever been shown in his short life.
Whether I was right or wrong, the case has obvious bearing on Michael Gove’s policy of placing more responsibility on governors to know their own prisons and the inmates there. At times governors will have to take chances. They may feel that a prisoner deserves to be led back to a normal life by a transition to more open conditions. Just as certainly, they will sometimes get the decision wrong.
Occasionally, as in the case of Frank Mitchell, the decision may lead to catastrophic consequences. Unless we the public are prepared to accept that risk of failure, then Michael Gove’s new policy will be hamstrung before it begins. We should remember that the clamour comes not just from crusty old politicians who reject prison reform in any event. Two of the leading parliamentary critics of giving Frank Mitchell the freedom of the moors that he enjoyed were a pair of young MPs — Michael -Heseltine and David Owen.
Norman Fowler was on the staff of the Times until 1970, and later served in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet for ten years.