Broadmoor was opened in 1863 as the “State Criminal Lunatic Asylum,” where originally 300 men and 100 women would enjoy croquet on the lawn, dance parties and other social activities in and around the grand building with sweeping, highly therapeutic views over Berkshire and Surrey.
Today the hospital treats about 210 men—it became single-gender in 2007—most of whom have severe mental illnesses and have committed serious, violent crimes. About 35 per cent come from prisons, 35 per cent from the court system, and the rest from other psychiatric units and high-security hospitals. The average stay at Broadmoor is six years; some have been there for more than 30 years. Patients past and present include Charles Bronson, often referred to as the “most violent prisoner in Britain,” Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, Stockwell Strangler Kenneth Erskine, and 1950s London gangland Kray twin Ronnie Kray, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
On average there are four assaults a week on staff. “You have to learn to work with that,” says clinical nurse manager Ken Wakatama in the documentary. Some patients require a “six-person unlock.” At one point, a patient refuses to come back inside when his time in the exercise yard is up—it takes nine staff to get him back into his room. Another time, the camera crew is asked to leave when the team feels “Lenny” has become too manic—they chase him down like a wild animal and forcibly sedate him.
For the most part, however, the documentary avoids too much sensationalist voyeurism. Sutcliffe declined to participate, which is probably just as well. The patients, with their faces blurred and details of their crimes undisclosed, are invited to tell their stories. We meet “Daniel,” an intelligent 24-year-old and clearly a talented artist who 10 years ago was convicted of a violent crime against his own family. His family, he says, have stuck by him. He is grateful for that, and for Broadmoor.
And we meet “Declan,” who recalls being put into care, at age nine. “I remember the day,” he says. “My mum took me to the office, I was sat there on the chair and the next minute she just left. She went, ‘You’re not coming with me.’ ” He was abused in the care home from the start, ran away, lived on the streets, and ended up committing a crime that involved torture. Other patients had stories of sexual abuse in care homes from a very young age, too. Robert Kennedy once said: “Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves.”
Dr Amlan Basu, clinical director at Broadmoor, sums it up: “Patients that come here, they will have perpetrated often horrendous crimes but they are also victims and it’s very easy to see somebody as either the perpetrator or the victim. It’s much more difficult to understand that somebody might be both.”
It is hard not to feel for the staff, working with dignity in a really tough environment, but hard also not to be moved by the stories of some of the patients. This is a hospital, not a prison. The staff have not given up on the patients, and perhaps as a consequence, a lot of the patients seemingly haven’t given up on themselves. We see them taking part in talking therapy, playing with a Labrador from the pets-as-therapy scheme, participating in a poetry event. If the measure of a society is how it treats its most unlovable members—as no doubt Plato, Samuel Johnson, Gandhi or Nelson Mandela once said—then on the evidence of this documentary, Broadmoor appears to score rather well.
Are you mad?
The Victorian asylums of old, like Broadmoor, inspire both horror and fascination. Whatever the original intentions of the asylums, by the height of the British colonial period—when there were 120 in England Wales alone—they had largely become cruel and barren warehouses for the dispossessed of society, somewhere to dump all the outcasts and misfits and keep them out of sight. The conditions—and some of the “treatments"—were often quite barbaric. We are still haunted by these tales. And by the dread of finding ourselves in an asylum, restrained, powerless, afraid. The famous Rosenhan experiment from 1973 showed just how easy it is to get committed, and how hard to be released. “The asylum" looms large in our imagination. It perhaps serves as a warning, a deterrent to letting everything fall apart. We imagine a slippery slope, a great unravelling: one minute we're upset, silently weeping in the supermarket perhaps, the next, we fear, we find ourselves in a straightjacket, a padded cell, semi-comatose from sedatives, dimly aware that we're being prepped for a lobotomy. We project all of our fears onto the asylum. We desperately fear our own madness.
And yet, one definition of sanity is a recognition, an embrace even, of the madness within. Winnicott wrote: “We are poor indeed if we are only sane.” If we edit out all our rough edges, our creativity, our spontaneity, our urges, our energies, our roiling emotions, our all-consuming passions, strange habits, wacky ideas and silly schemes—are we then sane? Or are we rather presenting to the world what Adam Phillips calls a “superficial sanity"—obedient, no trouble, soulless, uninspired? Writes Phillips in Going Sane: “Madness, at its best, is a journey towards true sanity, towards authenticity of our real nature; through madness we are in contact with the best things about ourselves."
Our superficial sanity is deadening. Our madness, if we can safely let it breathe a little, is on the side of life.
Part II of Broadmoor: Wednesday 12 November at 9pm on ITV