Why Ronnie Biggs should be freed
Jack Straw's decision to leave the Great Train Robber to die behind bars is pointless, and shows that prison sentences lack consistency
When my boyfriend was murdered in 1991, his killer was up for parole after just ten years. People go down for more than that in fraud cases, so I know first-hand just how haphazard sentencing in this country can be. I'm not making a blanket suggestion that sentencing needs to get tougher; it just requires more consistency and a better sense of perspective.
Take the case of Mario Celaire, a footballer with a history of violence against women. He killed his girlfriend Cassandra McDermott in 2001, smashing her head against a door and leaving her under a duvet to die. Six years later he attacked Kara Hoyte with a hammer, which left her paralysed and severely mentally disabled. On Friday he was given two concurrent 'life' sentences, but was told he must serve only a minimum of eight years for McDermott's manslaughter. Contrast this with last week's big sentencing controversy, the case of Ronnie Biggs who has effectively been condemned to die in prison by Justice Secretary Jack Straw.
Unlike most commentators, I've actually seen Ronnie Biggs in the flesh. The first time was in the visits hall at HMP Belmarsh. His son Michael was at the table next to me. No longer the sweet little Brazilian cherub from the various documentaries and press photos over the years, he went un-recognised. We waited while the inmates were finally allowed to start trickling into the hall, but only very slowly – a procedure the authorities have designed to frustrate and provoke by cutting into valuable visiting time. Luckily for me, my friend Jermaine was one of the first inmates out that day. He told me that Biggs was next in line.
The tabloid legend before me was elderly, frail and vulnerable. It was ridiculous
I was quite excited. The Great Train Robbery has plotlines that include elaborate escapes over 30ft prison walls, plastic surgery, attempted kidnaps and a love child. It has characters called 'Buster Edwards' and 'Slipper of the Yard', and glamorous locations such as Australia, Brazil and my own sweet Barbados.
But there is one thing that this blockbuster doesn't have - a passable leading man. The tabloid legend before me was now elderly, frail and vulnerable. A few people acknowledged him with a nod of the head. Biggs tried to return the greeting. Someone came and shook his hand, but it was awkward. As you'd expect, his son greeted him warmly. They hugged and kissed and you could see in his eyes he was relieved to see Michael. I tried not to stare, but he looked so ill. He could no longer talk and had to use an alphabet board, pointing to letters to spell out words in order to communicate. It was tragic. More than that, it was ridiculous.
That brief encounter was about five years ago. After a series of strokes, pneumonia, MRSA and a recent fall that left him with a broken hip, pelvis and spine, Biggs is now said to be on his last legs. If recent reports are accurate, he can't eat or drink and is being fed through a tube. Yet despite the Parole Board's recommendation that he be released, the Justice Secretary Jack Straw has turned this down. Why?
Well according to Straw, Ronnie Biggs is "wholly unrepentant" and has shown "no regret". It's a bit rich of Mr Straw to demand penitence from a man who played a minor part in a heist committed 46 years ago, when he himself has shown no remorse whatsoever for the major role he played in illegally sending thousands of troops to Iraq.
The truth is, it's of no consequence to anybody but Biggs and the man upstairs if he has regrets at this stage. What should concern the public and the powers that be, is that he no longer poses a threat to anyone and there is no risk of re-offending. The sentences handed out at the time were ludicrous in the first place, politically motivated and designed to send out a strong message in a very different time. Nevertheless he has now served a third of his 30 year sentence, as did all of the original gang.
As Anne Widdecombe rightly said: "The public must be protected, but the public needs protection from a lot of people before they need protection from the person that Ronnie Biggs is now." ·