Psychopaths and the ‘delicate balance of terror’

Gavin Wilkinson on how the games played between during the cold war had contributed to pushing some people into the criminal justice system

By: 
Gavin Wilkinson
Date: 
Monday, 08 July, 2019

Whilst working in an approved premise for people in the final stages of their sentences, I became aware of a new arrival. He was a 36-year-old man named Alan (not his real name). Before Alan arrived, he had spent 15 years in the criminal justice system. My boss at the time called me at home one Saturday evening to inform me that Alan would be with us on Tuesday. The purpose of the phone call was to summon me to a meeting first thing on Monday morning. In the meeting we planned to discuss a psychological report which needed our urgent attention.

The Monday morning meeting

The psychological report which had caused alarm among the team was one which had declared Alan as being highly psychopathic. The psychological report contained the application of the Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R). Alan had scored well above the cut-off point on the checklist which contains items on it such as: criminal versatility, pathological lying, superficial charm, and lack of remorse or guilt. Psychopathy is not an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Assessments for the presence of this disorder are common in violence risk assessments on offenders in forensic psychological settings. Wide spread panic was present within the management team at the hastily called meeting. What were we going to do with a psychopathic resident? He had previously assaulted two nurses during a short stay in a psychiatric unit in between several prison sentences. The outcome of the meeting was that extra security personal were to be hired for a short period.

Alan’s life before entering the criminal justice system in Britain 

Alan’s story was intriguing to say the least. He could be charming and engaging, and was also very traumatised. He had fled to Britain with his parents from Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s. 

His father had decided to leave after a close relative was killed by Soviet troops during the 1968 invasion. However, life in 1970s Britain was not all it was all it promised. The journey across continental Europe proved traumatic for Alan and his parents. Alan’s father had developed a harmful alcohol habit. His despairing mother had also become prone to long bouts of depression. 

The journey involved Alan going for long periods without food and water or any affection. Upon arriving in Britain, settled employment and housing proved hard to find. The family moved around to different accommodation every 3-4 months for 4 years. In the 1970s Britain was hardly a model of economic stability. The three-day working week, long periods of industrial action, an oil crisis, rising crime, and rising instances of mental health problems within the population meant Britain was in trouble. 

Along with personal despair of the traumatic upheaval from Prague, economic hardship, declining mental health in both parents meant Alan was set up for a life of neglect. As he grew into adolescence, theft and fire setting were regular pursuits. Expulsions from several schools for violently assaulting staff and peers meant he received little education. 

Alan’s life in the approved premises

Alan wasted no time in making himself known to staff and other residents in the approved premises. Declaring to everyone that he was ‘a changed man’ and that the life of crime was ‘over’. 

Only two weeks after his arrival, we noticed that the staff rota for the extra security presence had gone missing. Complaints from other residents in what was a reasonably settled facility had also risen. 

It turned out Alan was regularly having conversations with other residents in their rooms (off camera) and trying to blackmail them with their personal information in return for money and alcohol. He had also manipulated a member of staff into providing personal details about other staff members with threats of false allegations of sexual misconduct to be made about them if they did not ‘cough up’.  Alan’s attempts to get leverage over people tended to be more active when the security presence in the premises was it its lowest. Alan was maintaining his own delicate balance of terror in the premises. 

One quiet night whilst I was the shift manager, Alan appeared at the door asking to speak to me. As soon as I opened the door he pulled out a large knife and demanded entry to the main office so he could be in the ‘hot seat’ of the ‘control centre’. I thought it would be a good idea to grant him his wish. 

I allowed him into the main office and to sit on my seat. One thing I had learnt about Alan, and how I could bring the situation to an end, was his need to ruthlessly exploit people’s weaknesses so he could dominate them and gain control. I decided the only way to end the situation and to avoid being held for a long period at knife point was to allow Alan to ruthlessly exploit and control me in a way in which I could practically meet his needs. 

Alan in charge

‘That’s right’ I declared, ‘you’re in charge now Alan, here are the keys, this is the main control centre the hot seat is all yours. I suppose now you’re in charge I should fetch you a cup of tea and something to eat?’. Alan’s face lit up with joy and excitement. ‘Yes, that’s right, fetch me a cup of tea and a sandwich, I’ve got phone calls to make’, said Alan haughtily. 

I made my escape from Alan and his knife very casually and headed towards the kitchen. En route I accessed the staff room in which I could collect my coat and mobile phone. This allowed me to make the necessary phone call to the police. I brought Alan his cup of tea and sandwich. ‘Anything else, I can do?’ I asked. ‘No that will be all, go and watch television or amuse yourself, I’m busy here’. I followed his instructions. Less than two minutes later a police van arrived accompanied by dogs and Alan was escorted away. The whole incident could not have lasted more than ten minutes. 

Alan’s life after the approved premises 

On his return to prison, Alan made little progress with his behaviour. Adjudications and negative reports about his behaviour continued. Attempts at psychological treatment largely failed and prison was not working. I am unsure how much longer Alan spent in prison as I eventually changed job. 

Trauma-informed approaches 

Trauma-informed approaches to working with offenders are now part of the mainstream conversation. Whilst training and implementation of trauma-informed approaches has improved for staff and offenders alike. However, room for improvements in the way we work with traumatised populations should always be strived for if re-offending is to be reduced. 


Gavin Wilkinson works with a range of offenders with complex needs, and has 17 years of experience working in mental health and criminal justice services