At 6.20 a.m. on Tuesday, the serial killer Harold Shipman hanged himself in Wakefield prison. He tied a noose in a bedsheet, placed it round his neck, tied the other end to the bars of his windows and jumped off a radiator pipe. It is difficult to see what else there is to say about the matter, but no doubt Stephen Shaw, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, will already have some ideas. He has just been appointed to carry out an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the former GP’s death.
Mr Shaw will do his job with professionalism. He will establish what Harold Shipman had for supper the night before his demise, what exactly was said in Shipman’s last telephone conversation with his wife, Primrose. At the end of the process, we can doubtless look forward to several pages of recommendations. Radiator pipes in British jails will be lowered, bedding redesigned, new training given to warders to enable them to identify suicidal behaviour. And a small army of lawyers will be taking holidays and moving to larger houses on the proceeds.
We do not join those who have cheered Harold Shipman’s death. As Theodore Dalrymple has written elsewhere, to celebrate the loss of a human life on the grounds that we regard that life as worthless is the beginning of barbarism. We do not have the death penalty, not even a cut-price do-it-yourself version, and therefore prison officers have a duty to look after their charges. Nevertheless, it is hard to see that an inquiry into Harold Shipman’s death will be public money well spent. No matter the effort put into watching him, it is all but impossible to stop a man bent on killing himself from carrying out the deed, especially a man who managed to kill an estimated 215 patients before he was detected.