Bank clerk Julie Bains had a shotgun pointed at her face. For two years shewas traumatised and unable to sleep. Nowsheworks in a jail trying to get criminals to consider the human cost of violence, reports Chris Arnot ‘Even after the ones who raided my bank were locked away, I didn’t feel safe. My mind was frozen with fear’
PAUL CHAMBERS has just returned from a work-out in the gym at Long Lartin top-security prison. Thick thighs bulge from his shorts as he eases his frame into an uncompromisingly modern chair. On the wall opposite, a poster advertises the unspoilt charms of a beautiful holiday island which few of the inmates will be visiting for some time. If ever.
Chambers leans forward to pick up his tea. Rippling around a biscuit, his jaw displays almost as much stubble as his closely shaven head. He is a big and menacing man, and it’s easy to see why building society staff felt impelled to hand over thick wads of money after one glance at the eyes above his mask. He is doing six years for robbery.
There are five other prisoners in the room, most of whom are serving longer sentences because they felt their cash demands might have a little more leverage if they were armed. Also present are awarder and a psychologist.
The atmosphere is relaxed, almost soporific, but as the conversation turns to ‘‘have a- go-heroes’’, there is no disguising the hostility. One prisoner tells us about an armed robber on his wing who killed a member of the public because he got in the way.
‘‘Somebody jumped on his back as he ran out of the bank, and now he’s doing life instead of 10 years.’’ He shakes his head at the injustice of it all.
Changing such attitudes is the raison d’eˆtre of a pioneering course intended to bring armed robbers face-to-face with the human consequences of their crimes. The lecturer today is a former bank clerk who has been seconded to the psychology unit. Julie Bains knows all too well what it is like to look down the wrong end of a sawn-off shotgun.
She entered Long Lartin last year with considerable trepidation. Heavy metal doors slammed behind her, one after another. She walked down bleak corridors with oppressively low ceilings, leading into the bowels of a building that houses some of the most dangerous criminals in Britain.
This delicately built woman of 32 was about to confront 30 prisoners serving lengthy sentences for armed robbery. She did not hold back; after all, it was a man just like one of these who had plunged her into deep trauma for two-anda- half years. And men tend to look much the same when barking orders through a balaclava and pointing a barrel at your head from a distance of 18 inches.
‘‘They wrecked my life and they had no right to do that,’’ she told her captive audience as they shifted round uncomfortably. ‘‘After that raid, I couldn’t show emotion. I couldn’t even hold my husband’s hand. When my daughter fell off a horse, I couldn’t bend down and cuddle her.’’
There was a pause while she swallowed hard and blinked. Then she continued in a strong but tremulous voice: ‘‘She’s 10 years old. How would you like your family to go through that?’’
Mrs Bains was one of several victims invited to address the prisoners, but so moving was her performance that she was asked to join the team. A video showing clips of it is still shown regularly to smaller groups of Long Lartin’s 150 resident robbers. Even Paul Chambers admits: ‘‘Anyone with heart would be touched by that. I’d never thought much about the people behind the counter before.’’
The project seems likely to spread far beyond Long Lartin. Staff from other prisons have travelled to this bleak blot on the Vale of Evesham to view the programme in action. So has the Prisons Minister, Ann Widdecombe, who pronounced herself impressed.
‘‘Historically, armed robbers have not addressed their offending,’’ says Sonia Copestake, senior psychologist at Long Lartin.
‘‘They’re not considered to have treatment needs, unlike rapists, arsonists or other violent offenders, and we were colluding with that belief. But they all put forward the same justifications. To them, it’s a victimless crime, paid for by institutions which can well afford it.’’
Mrs Bains set out to disabuse them of that notion. ‘‘I’m not a sign outside Barclays or NatWest,’’ she told them. ‘‘I’m a human being. And to get money out of banks, you have to frighten innocent peoplewitless.’’
She now works full-time with the sort of men whom she once regarded, uniformly, as evil hooded monsters out to destroy her. ‘‘It was totally irrational,’’ she admits. ‘‘Even after the ones who raided my bank were locked away [in Wakefield and Full Sutton for a total of 23 years] I didn’t feel safe. My mind was still frozenwith fear.’’
Her trauma began just after 10am on a December day in 1992. It was the third attempted robbery in asmany months at a sub-branch of Barclays in suburban Leeds. Twice she had refused to hand over money to would-be robbers who had seemed somewhat unconvincing. Both fled.
This time, she knew the threat was real. As the senior of only two staff, she emptied the tills and handed over around £4,000. But the two men in black balaclavas wanted more. ‘‘Get down and get the big stuff or you’re going to get hurt,’’ one of them shouted, pressing the end of his shotgun against the glass screen and pointing it directly between her eyes.
‘‘He knew as well as I did that the screen wasn’t bulletproof. His finger was on the trigger, and he was twitchy with adrenalin. Luckily, he was distracted by a customer who came in the side door.He tried to grab her, but she ran off and they followed her out. I’m convinced she saved my life. All I could think of while that gun was pointing at me was that my little girl was going to grow up without a mother.’’
As it turned out, Emma Bains’s mother was present only in physical form for the next two-and-a-half years. Julie’s personality changed. She became remote, obsessed with personal security.
‘‘In all that time, I hardly slept,’’ she says. ‘‘Every time I shut my eyes, I saw that mask and gun. It put a terrible strain on my marriage but my husband, Steve, has been 100 per cent behindme.’’
Last month, Steve and Emma moved from Leeds to rent a home near Julie’s work at the prison. Barclays is paying her salary for a year, and has guaranteed her a job in mortgage administration. But she is hoping to persuade it, as well as other banks, building societies and petrol station companies, to fund the prison project on a permanent basis.
Understandably, it took psychologists at Long Lartin some time to persuade her of thewisdomof confronting her fears, but she is glad that she accepted their advice.
Walking into Long Lartin, she says, was a pivotal moment in her life. ‘‘I feltmyself becoming stronger as the day went on. I’d got rid of the hatred and left it in there. There was a great relief, and then tiredness. I slept all the way through that night, and I’ve never had trouble sleeping since.’’
Certainly, the assured young woman conducting a seminar for armed robbers as though they are trainee bank clerks bears no relation to the emotional wreck captured on filmlast July. She talks with the relaxed fluency of a born teacher. Flow-charts and other diagrams are pinned up to emphasise not only the plight of victims such as herself, but also the statistical likelihood of re-offenders finishing up back inside.
The points are not lost on Steve Brodie, nearly halfway through a 10-year sentence for his part in an armed raid on a Liverpool bingo hall. He shows me cuttings from the Liverpool Echo — crime stories about burglaries,muggings, bank robberies. ‘‘I used to look at these and think: ‘Hey, they didn’t get away with much there’.Now I tend to think more about the victims. I never met a victim until my sister was burgled; never thought about them much.’’
Like just about every prisoner in the room, Brodie announces his intention of going straight when he is released. His heroin habit is behind him, and there is a job waiting for him in a scrapyard. But that could be more than five years away.
The psychology team at Long Lartin is aware that the real test of its project will come some time in the future, when released prisoners face the pressures of the outside world. Hence the need for regular booster courses to reinforce the message. ‘‘We sent out a questionnaire to those who have been on the course, and the initial response has been encouraging,’’ says Monica Lloyd, head of psychology. ‘‘I know it’s easy for them to make things up, but it’s difficult to maintain a false persona throughout.’’
Paul Chambers says he is going back to his car lot in Wolverhampton. ‘‘I’m also starting a business selling gold,’’ he adds mysteriously. He should be out in two years. But two years can seem like an eternity — as Julie Bains knows only too well.