"He will be living in a nightmare." This was how a former prison governor, speaking on Sky News this afternoon, described the kind of life that Ian Huntley will be leading in jail. The serious attack on the Soham murderer -- his throat was slashed by a fellow inmate at Frankland Jail on Sunday -- has attracted plenty of coverage, none of it (as far as I can see) tinged by the tiniest bit of sympathy for him.
As this Telegraph recap of his trial explains, "the latest attack on Ian Huntley recalls the revulsion" felt about him and his accomplice, Maxine Carr. "In the witness box he told a tissue of lies, meaning even at the end of the 30-day trial, he remained the only person to know why he committed the brutal murders."
No wonder, perhaps, that he has now been subjected to nine attacks, and has attempted suicide three times.
That Huntley should face the severest penalties the courts can impose is unarguable. It may be that many feel he would have got no more than he deserved if the cut had been fatal. But we do not have the death penalty in this country. We content ourselves with the idea that the deprivation of liberty, of choice, of contact with friends and loved ones, of the ability to have any control over most of one's actions, is sufficient punishment.
No one expects that this experience should be particularly enjoyable, which is why there are periodic rumpuses about prisoners being granted access to such luxuries as televisions, or being fed food that is considered too good for them.
However, as Peter Wilby writes in the current issue of the New Statesman, doing so with reference to the understandable desire for revenge of Denise Fergus, the mother of Jamie Bulger: "That is why we have a justice system that balances the retribution demanded by victims against mercy, the hope of redemption and a large dose of common sense."
Kudos for kicking an underdog
In a prison such as Frankland, the former governor explained this afternoon, Huntley will be at the very bottom of the pile. Other prisoners, such as armed robbers, granted the most "respect" by their peers, will gain further kudos from perpetrating attacks on one of these lowest of the low.
Hence the "living nightmare" he will be enduring. And I wonder how this can possibly be right.
The sentences the courts hand down are for periods of years, and the penal system allocates the category of prison appropriate for different convicts. I know of no clauses that suggest that part of the punishment for certain prisoners is that they should have to experience a particularly frightening time in jail, or that they should have to spend much of it in fear of their lives.
The crimes that Ian Huntley committed are so heinous that I cannot begin to understand how anyone could choose to do such things. It is indeed very hard to feel sympathy for such a man. But it is for the courts to pass judgment on men like him, and to set his punishment.
Unless we are happy for criminals to decide who then deserves further punishment -- and spending years in "a living nightmare" must surely constitute a cruel and unusual one -- we have to recognise that Ian Huntley has been the victim of a near-mortal attack, and that there is something very wrong with a prison system incapable of protecting him from that.
Any who reject this idea, or who just don't care what happens to him, have reached a conclusion that I find deeply chilling: that there are some people who no longer deserve justice, mercy and the chance of redemption. But if justice means anything, shouldn't it mean justice and equal protection under the law for all -- even Ian Huntley? Or have we quietly decided that when it comes to some of our fellow citizens, revenge and barbarity are perfectly acceptable?