Breakfast with a Murderer

Content & Trigger Warning // sexual abuse, violence, murder

I work in Forensic Mental Health services. A lot of people furrow their brows when I tell them this. As a Senior Psychosocial Therapist, I work with patients who have a criminal past, many of whom are considered too mentally disordered to be in prison. Working in this line of work comes with a huge weight of responsibility and also requires the ability to manage fear, emotion and balancing all of this whilst trying to build strong therapeutic relationships. It can take years of treatment to reduce a patient’s risk of violence but it is a whole team of professionals that decide whether a patient is safe enough to re-join the outside world. The patients have committed a mixture of offences, including: armed robbery, attempted murder, murder, rape and sexual offences. (Needless to say, when I got the job, my partner exhibited rather mixed emotions whilst congratulating me.) One thing I always say to people when speaking about my line of work is that although I cannot call any of my patients “good people” due to the crimes they have committed, there is some good in everyone — and to be able to see that in them day after day, brings me huge joy and a sense of purpose. At the hospital, we endeavor to balance the needs of the patients with the risk to the public. Here we deliver a wide variety of one-to-one and group treatment programs and have been able to discharge patients safe and well back into the community. Occasionally, patients commit crimes whilst they are here, in which case they are deemed “not ready” for the treatment we provide and are subsequently returned back to prison. I have seen this a few times, sadly, but the vast majority of them are on a path — a path of healing, understanding and a strong desire to return to a “normal life”.

I would like to share a few stories of my interactions with patients, of course I am bound by my duty of care and out of respect for them and the victims, I am not able to give full details of their offences or backgrounds. But the aim here is to give you some insight into what my work entails. Perhaps even awaken some sort of understanding from you, somewhere in your anterior insular cortex (the part of your brain where your empathy comes from), to understand why I do and love my job so much.

Brendan* has been in prison for more than 30 years. He committed a series of offences throughout his youth, his final offence being murder when he was in his early twenties. Brendan has been incarcerated ever since. His history is one of repeated sexual abuse whilst in care, by both men and women, starting in his formative years. Brendan eventually engaged with the man he killed in a casual sexual relationship and during one of these encounters, under the influence of drugs, Brendan murdered him.

Recently, he was allowed to leave the hospital grounds for the first time and head into a nearby town. He hasn’t been outside of prison or hospital services in three decades, so understandably was very nervous about it. Although I knew a few days before that I would be escorting him myself, he didn’t know until the morning of. I approach him and inform him that we’d be going together. He then starts reeling off a bunch of rules, using his fingers to count them out. “Right. Ok. Few things. When I’m on the bus, I don’t want you talking to me or sitting next to me. I want to listen to my music and be left alone. Also, I want to pop into a café and have a fry up,” he looks at me with raised eyebrows, almost in an intimidating way so that I don’t questions any of it. “Fine by me,” I say smiling. I can sense that he is feeling very nervous and his somewhat aggressive tone feels rehearsed and put on. “Just one question, I guess,” I ask. He stares at me. “How come you don’t want to talk to me on the bus, what’s that all about?” I asked carefully, choosing my tone wisely, ensuring it’s friendly and on the borders of banter. Brendan shrugs his shoulders, “Well, I want to experience feeling free and take in my surroundings. Don’t need you gasbagging the whole way there.” I give him a nod to indicate that I agree and that I also understand.

Half an hour later, we leave the hospital grounds and are walking towards the bus stop that takes us into town. I notice him stumbling every couple of steps and turn to ask him if he was alright. “It’s my feet”, he explains slightly out of breath, “they’re not used to this ground.” I’d never actually considered this before. He went on to explain that being in prison for 30 years meant he was always on flat ground and now being in a hospital, it was the same. His feet were simply not used to the uneven surface and dips of the road and I notice that he continued to stumble every once in a while for the rest of the outing.

Once we were in town, he wants to go to a bank to check his account balance. As we leave the bank, he turns to me with wide eyes and proclaims quietly “I’ve robbed banks before. Bit weird going in, not gonna lie”. I reassure him that he had handled everything very well and we continue to run his errands. Every once in a while, he asks me to show him how to do something on his smart phone including how to use that “what’s-up-speech-bubble-thing” and how to clear his notifications. (On the ward, smart phones are not allowed. Patients that have one, have to keep it locked away in a personal locker located in reception and are only able to access it when they leave the unit.) We continue walking through town until we find a café. As he had explained in the morning, he wanted to get a fry up and so we go in and sit down. The café owner comes over to take our order and I am aware that Brendan is speaking rather loudly and chatting away about other things, which visibly annoys the café owner as he has things he has to attend to on the grill and this order is clearly taking too long for his liking. “Can you give us a minute?” I ask him softly. He nods and rushes back to the kitchen. I look at Brendan and decide check in with him, “Are you ok?” I ask.
-“Yeah, why do you ask?”
“You seem really… hyper. You’re speaking quite loudly.”
-“Am I?”
“It doesn’t matter to me, but I’m more concerned about how you’re feeling. What’s going on right now?”
He leans in over the table and quietly says “I’m just not used to seeing all these people.”
I tell him I understand and then ask him what he wants to eat. He chooses all the items he wants for his bespoke fry up and quietly repeats his order to himself as I get the attention of the café owner. The owner comes up again, visibly flustered from being the only person cooking, taking orders and clearing tables. I notice a woman emerge from the back door and enter the kitchen and assume she was an employee on her break. The café owner seems to relax a little and I can sense that Brendan is also feeling less anxious. We place our order (I order a tea) and the interaction is over rather quickly. As we sit waiting for our food, Brendan starts running through what else he needs to do in town before we head back. His outing is limited to only 2 hours and so we have to be efficient with our time. His food arrives, he chomps away on it happily, repeatedly telling me how good the baked beans are and shares tales from prison, including the use of terminology to indicate if staff are good or bad. He also tells me about the hierarchy of contraband items and the cost of them in prison and that pouches of tobacco can sell for up to £200. One of the two women sitting in the booth behind us, makes concerned eye contact with me and I swiftly change the conversation back to his baked beans.

After breakfast, we walk past a jewellery shop. Brendan looks in the window display and I join him and make a comment about one of the pendants. He looks at me and I can sense there is something he wants to say but isn’t saying. I prompt him.
“Do you want to go in there?”
-“I can’t”
“Don’t be silly of course you can.”
-“No I can’t. I haven’t been inside a shop like this since I’ve been arrested. I used to rob these kinda places you know.”
“Yeah, but you’re not going to rob it now are you. Let’s go have a look. Might be good for you.”
-“I can’t, I really can’t.” he starts backing away.
“Why not?”
-“Because, look how I’m dressed.”
“Oh whatever. C’mon. You’re coming with me. Let’s go.”
And with that, I drag his sleeve and we enter the shop. We don’t realize that we jump a queue of people waiting to get in, as there is only a limited amount of people allowed in the shop at one time due to social distancing rules. We have a quick look around, commenting on a few different things and pointing out what we like and dislike and exit the shop. He looks at me as we leave the shop.
“Thanks for that.”
-“For what?”
“I don’t know. I guess I just didn’t feel ready and that. But it was good”
-“But you were ready. And you managed it fine. Remember that.” I reply, smiling at him. He smiles back, almost relieved. Then he looks at me again and says “I like you, you know. You’re no bullshit.”

We head back to the bus stop, the dot matrix informing us that we have to wait 12 minutes for the next bus. Curiosity gets the better of me, “Brendan, me and you — we’re on a level, right?”
-“Me and you? Yeah.”
“If I ask you something, you know you don’t have to answer it”.
Brendan nods and smiles, “Go on then, ask me.”
“Why’d you do it?” I ask frankly.
-“Why did I do what. My crime?”
I nod. He sighs. For a moment, he is silent, pops a piece of nicotine replacement gum in his mouth and is seemingly trying to find the right words to answer my bold question.
“To be honest with you,” he says, kicking his feet around coyly “I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting and I guess I was trying to kill my past.”
“What do you mean”, I ask him quietly.
“I guess to me, I was slaying my childhood dragon.”

I nod and thank him for being so open with me. He remains quiet and I can tell that although he freely answered, I have made him feel a certain way, perhaps a little ambushed. On the bus, I sit a few rows behind him as per his request before we had ventured into town. This time however, he turns around to see where I am sitting and moves to the seat directly in front of me. He turns around to look at me, smiles and pops his earphones in and we travel back in silence. Once we are back on the hospital grounds, he thanks me for the day. I tell him to stop thanking me and instead suggest we start recounting all of the interactions we came across in the past two hours. Interactions that would mean nothing to the normal person — but they mean everything to him. After all, he has been speaking to the same group of people for years, so speaking and interacting with strangers was a completely new thing to him. We both reminisce about the café owner and how stressed he seemed and Brendan mentions he would love to run a café one day. “It’s a good way to launder money you know” he says.
-“Let’s just end this conversation here, shall we?” I say with a raised eyebrow and a smile. Brendan laughs as if it’s the funniest conversation he’s ever had.

*Disclaimer: While all the stories in this article are true, some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved and out of respect for the innocent.

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D. R. Sandhu

D. R. Sandhu

Senior Psychosocial Therapist at NHS forensic inpatient psychiatric service • BA Music & Psychology • MSc Psychology & Neuroscience