‘Insane’ murderer Brady seeks death in prison

Past, present, no future? Brady has a feeding tube taped permanently to his nose © Getty Images

The notorious Ian Brady says he should be treated as an ordinary criminal rather than a madman: he wants to be allowed to starve himself to death. So why is he being kept alive?

For the past 14 years, Ian Brady has been on hunger strike.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1966 for the murder of three children. But since 1985, when he was declared criminally insane, the so-called ‘Moors murderer’ has been held in the maximum security Ashworth Hospital. There, he is force-fed daily through a tube and offered basic food, which staff say he eats.

Brady, who is one of the most notorious killers in Britain, has said he has no desire to ever be freed. But he does want to be liberated from the regime under which he lives, and has been arguing this week at a tribunal that he can no longer be described as insane and should be held in prison. If he succeeds in his request to be moved to a Scottish prison, he will no longer be force-fed and can, if he wishes, starve himself to death.

He is still deemed a danger to the public and is, moreover, one of the 47 UK prisoners who has been given a whole life tariff. So his evidence is being broadcast from inside Ashworth to a Manchester courtroom, where courtroom artists and journalists examine his appearance and pore over his words for signs of either evil, madness, or both.

Along with his then-girlfriend Myra Hindley, who died in prison in 2002, this 75-year-old is still one of the most famous, and hated, criminals in Britain. She had failed to convince the courts that, as a reformed character who had been duped into committing the murders by an abusive Brady, she could safely be released. But Brady shows no remorse.

This week he has described his crimes as ‘recreational murder,’ and ‘an existential experience’. He now claims the symptoms he displayed during the 1980s, which resulted in psychiatrists deeming him psychotic, were ‘method acting’. In other words, that he was manipulating the system.

The case fascinates and horrifies the public. No doubt some of the interest is ghoulish: at Tuesday’s tribunal hearing Brady seemed to be boasting about his status as a modern-day Jack the Ripper. But behind the sensational headlines is a morass of ethical, legal and even medical dilemmas.

Hard case

‘This controlling personality is holding us all to ransom,’ say some. They want the courts and the prison authorities to continue prolonging Brady’s life so that he serves out all of his life sentence. Others suspect he wants to be transferred to a prison for an easier day-to-day life, and that his desire to die is fake.

Others say society should welcome an unrepentant murderer’s desire to free us from the burden of looking after him. Brady, unlike other prisoners who are deemed temporarily mad and successfully treated, will never ‘recover’. Insane or not, this criminal’s death will be mourned by no-one.

You Decide

  1. Should Ian Brady be allowed to starve himself to death? Should anyone?
  2. Is it right to use a mental health diagnosis to keep someone behind bars?


  1. Research other examples of hunger strikes: the Suffragettes, Gandhi, the IRA prisoners. Compare their cases, motivations and the response.
  2. Essay question: Is ‘criminally insane’ an unambiguous term?

Some People Say...

“Being deemed mad is too convenient for a murderer: state of mind is irrelevant to a crime.”

What do you think?

Q & A

There’s no dilemma here, this man should be kept in prison.
This is a very extreme case. But here’s a famousthought experiment: to design a fair society, you must imagine it from the point of view of those who end up in the worst positions. This means paying attention to someone like Brady, and how he fares in the criminal justice system.
OK, but what about the victims’ families?
You are right, of course. Brady is still inflicting sadistic cruelty by refusing to say where one of his victims is buried. In fact, from the hunger striking to toying with the feelings of the families, some observers say Brady is displaying the same desire for control that a judge described during a previous hearing in 2000. But is that a symptom of madness or an unpleasantly manipulative character that stops short of insanity?

Word Watch

Moors murderer
Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were found guilty in 1966 of three child murders: their victims had been buried in shallow graves on the moors outside Manchester in the North West of England. Later, in 1985, they confessed to two other killings. One of the graves has never been discovered, to the great grief of the victim’s family.
Whole life tariff
Those found guilty of a few types of murder, including child abductions, can be punished with the most severe type of life sentence: a guarantee that they will never be freed.
Method acting
At his tribunal, Brady referred repeatedly to Stanislavski, a guru of theatrical technique. When questioned further, he said he had been acting the part of an insane person during the 1980s by following these methods of ‘attempting to portray the heart and soul of the character’.
Thought experiment
Moral philosopher John Rawls argued in his book A Theory of Justice (1971) that all evaluation of whether society is fair should start from ‘the original position’. In other words if you start off unsure whether you are going to be a king, lawyer, doctor, prisoner, child or anything else, you would want everyone’s rights to be well balanced.

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