A waste of a life

Nicky Reilly with a bloodied face, being led away by two police officers, one male (off picture) and one female, after the 2008 Exeter bomb blastLast Wednesday, Nicky Reilly, who attempted to blow up a restaurant in Exeter with a home-made bomb which exploded in the toilet, injuring only himself, died in Manchester prison (otherwise known as Strangeways) where he was serving a life sentence for the attack, having been recently been moved from the Broadmoor secure hospital in Berkshire. The circumstances of his death have not been revealed, but we can assume it was not murder as this would have been made public. According to local press reports, Reilly converted to Islam at age 16 and was, according to his mother, a “peaceful follower of Islam” for several years before he was radicalised over a period of weeks in his early 20s by two so-called friends believed to have been in Pakistan and changed his name to Mohammad Abdul-Aziz Rashid Said-Alim, supposedly in reference to the 9/11 attackers (although all but the last are very common Muslim names); the two men apparently went through every last detail to make sure he got it ‘right’, which he of course didn’t.

I never had any contact with Reilly, so I don’t know how he presented to those he chatted to online and those he met in the kebab shop who encouraged him to carry out the bombing, but he had Asperger’s syndrome (note: that is not a condition people ‘suffer’ from) and was reported to have an IQ of 83, and I think it unlikely that they were entirely unaware of his impairments; he had been in contact with mental health services since the age of nine because of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and multiple suicide attempts and had been sectioned after one such attempt, and had had a difficult school and family life as a child. People in his condition are easy prey for various types of exploitation; besides the well-documented “mate crimes” in which people pretend to be friends to an individual with learning disabilities and then abuse or even kill them, there are cases of criminals using their eagerness to please others, their need for friendship and approval, to induce or coerce them into helping with criminal activities (e.g. letting their flat be used to store drugs). Whoever encouraged him to carry out the bombing played on his vulnerabilities.

I thought at the time that his sentence was unduly harsh, given his fragile mental state and the fact that he was not part of any major terrorist organisation, the device was crude and the bombing did not injure, let alone kill, anyone. The starting point for a tariff (that is, the minimum amount of time that must be served in prison) for an actual murder, a deliberate act in which someone was killed, is 12 years; his was 18 years. This was three years longer than that received by Roshonara Choudary, a young woman not thought to have learning difficulties, for stabbing the MP Stephen Timms in May 2010, two years later. Such inconsistencies are not uncommon in English sentencing for serious crimes; consider the fact that Adam Johnson, a footballer, received six years for sexual acts (not intercourse) with a 15-year-old girl, while Jeremy Forrest, a teacher, received a five-year sentence for running off to France with a 15-year-old girl who was his pupil and, as he later admitted, having sex with her. Much as with the sentences passed during the 2011 riots, often savagely harsh in response to trivial thefts that did not involve violence, the judge appears to have ignored usual mitigating factors (using his clean record against him, for example) and his disability.

Since we do not know the cause of his death other than that it was not murder, there is a distinct possibility that it was suicide. Reilly had recently been transferred from Broadmoor hospital, where his mother had said he had been treated very well (and where she had been allowed to see his room, very rare now even in low-security units for people with learning disabilities), to HMP Manchester, formerly Strangeways, which a recent inspection (PDF) had noted was overcrowded, where black, minority-ethnic and Muslim prisoners were much more negative about their relations with staff than other prisoners, and facilities for prisoners with disabilities were inadequate. The transfer may have been in response to his and another Muslim patient’s attack on a member of staff in a dispute over changes to Muslim prayer arrangements; however, it seems odd to transfer a vulnerable patient to a far-away prison over an offence much less than the one that got him sent there. His learning disabilities had, after all, not changed. It would also not be the first time a learning disabled offender was housed among a general prison population, male or female, and such prisoners are common targets for bullies.

This was a tragic waste of a life, of course partly by Reilly himself but also by those who bullied him as a child, those who exploited him after he became Muslim and by those who punished him out of proportion to the effects and the background behind the crime, treating him as a competent and sophisticated terrorist when he was neither. His imprisonment or treatment should have been aimed at rehabilitating him to a purposeful life in the community well within 10 years, rather than keeping him locked up indefinitely and thereby destroying him. This should be the same for all offenders with learning disabilities who, alongside those with challenging behaviour that leads them into the mental health system, are being failed with lethal consequences.

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