Trust can turn a heart of stone to flesh

Adam Harbinson
Adam Harbinson

There’s a line in the Mikado song by Gilbert & Sullivan that repeats the words: ‘Let the punishment fit the crime, and make each prisoner pent’ (pent means to be incarcerated).

When I was studying criminology, that line was used to paint the stark difference between two schools of thought. One sees no further than, ‘Make the punishment fit the crime.’ To them, the penal system is all about punishment, removing perpetrators from society for them to rot in gaol, nothing else. No place for rehabilitation, no mercy, no extenuating circumstances.

At the other end of the spectrum there are those who would argue that since it’s society that makes people what they are, and if a man turns to crime it’s not really his fault. His environment is to blame; the education system failed him; and so the economic system failed him too. Therefore, they argue, since it’s not his fault that he knows no different, and stealing is just another way of redressing the gross imbalance between rich and poor.

And so the accepted wisdom, in theory, is that the penal system rests on a ‘three-legged stool’ – containment (or protecting decent folk by removing dangerous individuals from society); punishment; and rehabilitation.

Jimmy Boyle was one of Scotland’s most violent gangsters. He was convicted of murder in 1967, but that was just after the death penalty was abolished in the UK, so the system couldn’t cope with the likes of him. He was so violent that a high-security unit was built for him at Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow, and he was left there to fester until Sarah Trevelyan, a young woman experimenting with art therapy, was allowed to visit him. In time, they established a relationship of sorts and Boyle’s cold heart began to warm.

He had been so psychologically damaged as a child that he couldn’t acknowledge his pain, far less speak about it, and a huge ball of fury and hatred had grown inside him, creating uncontrollable outbursts of violence. But he was able to express and deal with his pent up anger when he painted. These days he’s a successful author and sculptor.

In his book, A Sense of Freedom, Boyle tells how when the young art therapist visited him in his high-security unit she trusted him with a pair of scissors. Nobody had ever done that before. He had always been treated like an animal and so he behaved like one. ‘It was,’ he said, ‘a moment that completely transformed my life.’

Up until then Jimmy Boyle knew nothing of relationships, nothing of trust, nothing of love;,and he became a monster. But what made the difference? In a word, trust.

Someone was prepared to make herself vulnerable, to put Jimmy Boyle’s welfare before her own, and a heart of stone turned to flesh.

How about reaching out to someone today? No monumental challenge or insurmountable task, just a moment’s eye contact, a smile, a handshake, an acknowledgement that the foreign lady selling Big Issue exists.

And while the world might trundle on unchanged, someone’s world might be turned around, even just for a day.