“There is to my mind no justification for keeping Hess in prison any longer. He is 88. He has been in prison for 40 years. He has been without the company of other prisoners for over 16 years. Humanitarian reasons demand that no one should be treated this way,” Margaret Thatcher 1982*
Leonid Brezhnev regarded Margaret Thatcher’s plea for the release of Hess as lachrymose mush**. Rudolf Hess was deputy-fuhrer from 1933 to 1941 in the Nazi government. Nazi domestic policy implemented the brutal treatment of Germany’s Jewish population, the persecution of those with ‘deviant’ life-styles and the creation of a police state. Nazi foreign policy was expansionist. This meant the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia and the attack on Poland in 1939. Hess was a war criminal in every respect.
The USSR vetoed the release of Hess seeing it as an insult to the millions of Soviet citizens slaughtered by the Nazis. They believed that Hess’s imprisonment was a just reward for the barbarity of the Nazis. The USSR wanted him to suffer until he died. More than twenty million Soviet citizens died in the Nazi era and a desire for vengeance is entirely understandable even if uncomfortable for liberal democracies.
Lord Bourne expressed the liberal British attitude in a House of Lords debate in 1967. He said,
I strongly support [the] contention that Hess should be released. It would not hurt anyone, or divert the course of justice. When I was the Commandant in Berlin in 1949–51 I tried hard to get our Allies to move all seven prisoners out of Spandau, particularly on the grounds that it was cruel to keep only 7 men in a prison made for 300. (H.M. Inspector of Prisons agreed with me but it was turned down.) How much more cruel to keep one man alone in the same prison***.
Rolf Harris was a sexual predator but not in the league of the appalling Jimmy Savile, the paradigm of sexual predators. Harris was jailed for seven years when he was 84 years old for historic sex abuse crimes. There was no humanitarian consideration given to his age, health, or mental well-being, nor to the fact he was the carer of his elderly wife. Humanitarian principles didn’t apply to his release either. Harris isn’t the only prisoner over 80. Some elderly men are being incarcerated when they are already 80 or nearly 80****. Should humanitarian reasoning play any part in the sentencing of elderly criminals? Lord Bourne raised the issues of cruelty and loneliness in relation to Hess, who “would not hurt anyone”. The 84 year old Harris was probably unable to be a sexual predator and was therefore ‘harmless’. Harris was 84 when sentenced whilst Hess was a mere 73 when Bourne made his plea.
Meanwhile the government struggles to square the circle of vengeance with the reality of elderly criminals and a Select Committee made the following (bold?) recommendation:
Release on compassionate grounds remains a difficult decision for Governors and … the Minister…. [they] should add .. a criterion to be taken into account in considering the release on temporary licence on compassionate grounds for terminally ill prisoners, whether effective care can be provided in the prison in which they are held or in another suitably located prison (my emphasis)*****.
This recommendation means terminally ill prisoners should remain incarcerated and humanitarian considerations are inconsequential. Soviet–style vengeance is alive and well and living in our prisons.
British governments fear humanitarian impulses and ape Soviet style judicial savagery. The imprisonment of elderly criminals feeds the narrative of viciousness. Judicial excesses are a consequence of popularist politicians setting regressive standards. Michael Howard’s actions as Home Secretary are a prime example of the politicisation of sentencing. That Margaret Thatcher’s opinions on sentencing could be a benchmark for the humanitarian treatment of criminals is astonishing, but true.
See also https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/20/uk-pressed-for-rudolf-hess-release-from-spandau-prison-soviets-hitler-thatcher-national-archives
See also http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4518038/Rolf-Harris-87-released-prison-TOMORROW.html
****Gary Glitter (stage name) was 71 when sentenced to 16 years imprisonment; Max Clifford was also 71 when sentenced to eight years; Chris Denning, 73, was sentenced to 13 years and Michael Salmon was 80 when sentenced to 18 years. Meanwhile those sentenced to whole life tariffs, if young enough at conviction, can easily surpass the Thatcher humanitarian criterion of 40 years as being unjustified. John Childs was sentenced in 1979 and will soon reach 40 years of imprisonment but is unlikely to attract calls for humanitarian parole.
*****https://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/justice/older-prisoners.pdf Recommendation 19 p.54