By Ian Simpson, 04-Apr-2012 07:45:00
In Murder on Page One, Willie Johnson spends his time in jail writing. In real life, a number of prisoners have turned author, having used their sentence productively in days when rehabilitation was taken seriously by the prison authorities.
One of the most unusual people I met during my career in the courts had come to love poetry, in particular Wordsworth’s, during his many years of incarceration. I’ll call him McTavish. I first met him when he had been charged with a variety of crimes and I was to represent him as defence counsel in the High Court. Although I found him perfectly pleasant, he hated police and prison officers with a passion and, like some dogs with postmen, lost no opportunity to attack them.
The most serious charge on his indictment was an armed robbery on a Glasgow branch of what was then the Trustee Savings Bank. He and two others planned to enter the bank via the premises upstairs, but instead of doing so at a time and in a manner of their choosing, accidentally fell through the ceiling. An imitation firearm fell with them and they used it to threaten the staff, leaving with £10,000. When arrested two days later, McTavish took the opportunity to attack another policeman.
The comments he allegedly made to the police are classics of their kind: ‘I never put any gun to any ****’s heid. Just ask the wumman in the bank. Christ we nearly broke our necks getting into it … By the way, they were imitation guns, big yin … If ye get me a sentence in Peterheid I’ll plead. I don’t want to go to Carstairs (the State Hospital for the criminally insane).I’m no daft. You were wasting your time taking my prints. I always wear gloves.’
The evidence was overwhelming and he did plead guilty. There was little to say in mitigation, but I thought the judge should know about his love of poetry, and quoted these lines he claimed to have written, entitled ‘The Institutionalised Prisoner’:
‘Your life is blood
The heart so bored
With scattered years
In lifeless vessels.
Tattered, worn away
Veins have travelled
All your life
In little cells.’
The judge gave him fourteen years. He did have a dreadful record.
Some years later, I was on the bench in Hamilton when a prisoner at Low Moss Prison appeared before me and pled guilty to assaulting prison officers. I was handed his previous convictions and the last sentence, fourteen years, caught my eye. I looked again at the accused and saw that it was McTavish. I asked if he objected to me dealing with the case, but he did not. I added four months to his sentence and he returned to his study of poetry, seemingly quite happy.
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