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Angela Tilby: Prisoner who cast doubt on free will  

01 March 2024

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THERE is a car journey that I make regularly. It takes me past a high-security prison hospital that I once visited to attend the licensing of a new chaplain. A large common room had been turned into a temporary chapel, and the Bishop spoke to the inmates — rather movingly, I thought — about how they might help themselves by taking their medicine and collaborating with those trying to support them.

I was queuing for refreshments when I saw a smartly dressed man attending the kettle. To my surprise, he greeted me by name, which was when I recognised him. He had been a troublesome pupil at a prep school in which I had taught in my gap year, some 30 years before. I was glad to see that his life had turned out well; the suit and pressed shirt suggested that he had become one of the medical staff — a psychiatrist, perhaps?

But he then explained, smilingly, that he was, in fact, an inmate. The excessive cruelty and violence that had made him the despair of the school staff had led him here as a prisoner. He still had the charm and courtesy of his upper-middle-class background, and we chatted about the school chapel and evensong. It was all rather disconcerting. Somehow, he found my phone number, and he rang me a few times to try to persuade me to collaborate with his lawyer in getting his sentence reduced.

Every time I pass the gates of the prison, I think of him and wonder whether he is still there. I don’t know what crimes he committed, though my chaplain friend hinted that they were very serious.

But his story has often prompted me to question how responsible we are for our deepest flaws. I don’t mean the more obvious sins: Lent is a good time to try to amend our lives. But to be born, as he was, with a propensity for cruelty and violence, manifest from childhood, raises the issue of free will, especially when there was no obvious cruelty or deprivation in his childhood which might account for his behaviour. His two brothers, as I remember, although a bit wild, were nothing like as bad.

Another chaplain whom I met years ago said that he had chosen to work in prisons because he could not believe that anyone was beyond redemption. After some time, however, he had come to the grim conclusion that some people were simply wired to do evil, and nothing could fundamentally change them.

I am wondering what these people tell us about good and evil, and whether there are those beyond rehabilitation who must simply be contained, for the protection of us all. And, more disturbingly, whether we all have the seeds of psychopathy in the darker parts of our souls. Lord, have mercy.

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