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The End of the Wilderness Years: Interview with Thomas "TC" Campbell

by anna battista

"Guilty…It is more than a mere world. It is a verdict, a verdict in the condemnation of a life and which strikes at the very heart of all that you stand for or have ever stood for. It is a judgement upon you that you are deemed capable of…" Indictment - Trial by Fire, TC Campbell & Reg McKay

Located in the East End of Glasgow, Barlinnie Prison is the last remaining of the city's eight 19th century prisons. Even though the real units and cells are quite old, from the outside the prison looks like a modern building, characterised by monotonous colours, blue and yellow. The main entrance with the reception and its blue doors that open onto the visiting areas and the main prison gate look quite modern. Here visitors, often young women with toddlers, boringly wait before being admitted to the visiting area. Barlinnie, Scotland's biggest jail, was originally designed to hold 1000 male prisoners, though it often holds more than this. It was here in this prison that Thomas "TC" Campbell and Joe Steele were taken after being arrested twenty years ago, and it was here that they started protesting their innocence. The two men were jailed for life in 1984 for murdering six members of the Doyle family, including an 18-month-old baby, in a fire at their flat in Glasgow's Ruchazie housing scheme. The Doyles were victims of a war over lucrative ice cream van runs through Glasgow's housing schemes. The vans, often used by a local gang as a front for drug dealing or to sell stolen goods, could make thousands of pounds a week. Eighteen-years-old Andrew Doyle, nicknamed 'Fat Boy', was thought to be the target since he had resisted attempts to intimidate him and to take over the route he worked his ice-cream van. At the time, Campbell was a notorious criminal well-known to the local police and also a key player in the ice cream vans business.

Scotland was shocked by the murder of this innocent and hard-working family, but Campbell and Steele, often dubbed by the media from then on as "the ice cream killers", always stated they were both innocent: the former went on hunger strike several times while in prison, the latter often escaped from jail, one time he glued himself to the gates of Buckingham Palace in protest.

The Glasgow Two, as they were also called, were released on bail in 1996, when William Love, a police informer who had claimed he had heard the two saying they were responsible for the fire, admitted he lied under oath. After a year and a half though, Campbell and Steele were denied the appeal and returned to jail. The Criminal Cases Review Commission sent the case back to the appeal court in 2001 and, in December of the same year, Campbell and Steele were granted interim liberation.

On 17th March 2004, the appeal court declared they were both free, as their conviction had been quashed and they had been victims of a miscarriage of justice. The court based their final verdict on new evidence brought forward by the findings of a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of East London, Brian Clifford. When Campbell and Steele were arrested, four officers, Detective Inspector William McCafferty, Detective Sergeant Andrew Hyslop, Detective Constable Alexander Geddes and Detective Constable Ian Cargill, wrote an identical statement that claimed Campbell had said: "I only wanted the van windows shot up. The fire at Fat Boy's was only meant to be a frightener which went too far." Campbell always denied he had said this, in the same way as Steele denied he had said "I'm no' the one that lit the match" and "I thought you would have been here before now." Professor Clifford proved with his studies that it is unlikely that four human beings can write down with identical words a sentence they have just heard, hence the officers weren't really able to write four identical statements.

After twenty years, Campbell and Steele, the longest miscarriages of justice in Scotland after Oscar Slater, were finally free. They're no more "the ice cream killers", but the press is still after them, also because Joe Steele recently revealed to a British Sunday paper that he had hated Campbell for years and despised his celebrity gangster image, adding that he believed Campbell knew what had happened the night the Doyle family was killed.

In March 2003, I met TC Campbell in his house in the East End of Glasgow. At the time his statements couldn't have been published because the trial was still on. Campbell was quietly having his lunch in his flat with his wife Karen when I spoke to him. The environment he was in couldn't have been further away from Barlinnie or from all the other jails he had been in: frilly curtains adorned the windows, ceramic knick-knacks the furniture, photographs hung from the walls. While quietly eating, Campbell revealed to me in that occasion that he and Steele were both sceptical and a bit worried about the appeal, yet they were also happy. He also told me he had always been annoyed and angry at the label the media had stuck on him, "the ice cream killer", but he could do nothing rather than wait till the appeal and prove everybody he was innocent. But where did he find the strength to go on throughout those years? "Indignation and outrage gave me strength," Campbell stated, "You feel you've been abused, degraded and violated for all history to view and you know it's not right. You feel you're the only person who knows what's true and the only one to know what's right. When you give up on your own life, the pain and the hardship you endure become irrelevant, because there's something else that it's more important than you and your life and that's justice for all, justice for the children who will come after you, justice for the next generation. In the face of all that, your life becomes meaningless, I felt that my life became unimportant in the face of the ongoing travesty." Campbell talked a lot about justice and I wondered when, according to him, there is justice in our world, "Where there is no equality, there is no justice; where there is no justice there is no peace," he said, "where one party in any dispute retains the right or retains the privilege to control the mechanisms of justice, then you have inequality and you always have oppression. Then justice becomes irrelevant and equality becomes irrelevant."

Justice, though, seems to have been often forgotten in Great Britain, where miscarriages of justice happen quite frequently. "They keep on happening, but they don't adjust the system," Campbell claimed. "Miscarriages of justice aren't publicised because politicians and the media are so keen to say we have the best system in the world, but it's not like that. Now and again miscarriages of justice make the press and go into the public perception, but you'll never see anything coming into the public perception about what happens to the people who have suffered a miscarriage of justice after they get out of jail. Usually they give them a compensation, but you can't compensate people for years of imprisonment, for years of loss of their lives and their families, you can't compensate the victims, the victims have been violated, the victims' families have been violated by the fact that the wrong person has been convicted," he said in an angry tone, continuing: "A miscarriage of justice helps the guilty to go free and to stay free, nothing has ever been done to correct the system to stop something like this from reoccurring again and again. It will always re-occur while there is not equality in the law. I believe that the system of Scottish Justice is one of the best systems in the world but the administration of that is the worst. The Scottish Justice System is one of the best systems in the world IF properly administered, the problem is that it is never properly administered. It is always administered by people who are concerned about their own careers and want to pursue things for their own aims. They tell me the system is getting better, but I don't think it is: justice only seems to be done, but it has got to be done to be seemed to be done."

Campbell tells his story in two books he co-wrote with investigative journalist Reg McKay, Indictment - Trial by Fire and The Wilderness Years - The brutality of the British prison system and one man's search for justice (2001; 2002; both published by Canongate). The books include an insight on Scottish prisons (Campbell was shangai'd from one Scottish prison to the other, from Barlinnie to Shotts to Peterhead), on Glasgow's gangland and on the trial. Campbell told me that writing had a cathartic effect on him: "I didn't understand what 'cathartic effect' meant until after I had written them," he said, shaking his head, "then I realised that my memories had come out of my soul, out of my heart and into my head and for the first time I wasn't living in my memories, I wasn't part of my memories. I was no longer living the pain and that was a cathartic effect, I had transferred the pain from my soul and from my heart into my brain in the writing process. But while writing there were times when I just wanted to scream because I had so much to say. If anybody would ask me a simple question I'd go on for two and a half hours. People didn't realise how much they were triggering by a simple question. There was so much chain reaction memory and there was so much I had to say that I couldn't say it in a letter, I couldn't say it in a verbal, I couldn't say it just by talking to people, I just had to sit down and write it down. I had boxes upon boxes of archive records in jail because I used to keep records and diaries and, at the strangest times, pieces of memories would come to mind and I would just scribble them on pieces of envelopes and things like that and I kept all these things. Each of these things would create a picture in my mind: if I wrote down a note on a piece of envelope, then five, six, ten years later I would find that envelope and it would flash me back to the time that I wrote it and it would flash me back to what I was writing and then I would try to put those visual flashes into words."

Both the books contain transcripts of the trials, transcripts which were very difficult to get: Campbell had to wait for twelve and a half years to obtain them. "Although the law says that for your appeal you're entitled to your transcripts under section this and section that, if you try to get them, you won't manage to," Campbell recounted, "Letter upon letter, petition upon petition, there's no way I could achieve to get any transcript. By the time of my first Appeal Court in 1985 I had nothing. The law says very clearly that I was entitled to these things and then I found that, although it says so, the procedure doesn't entitle you to and if you ask for reasons why you don't get them they tell you that they must be granted by the Lord Chief Justice General. So, in the end too many years passed since I got access to any of the transcripts."

Some of the hardest to read parts of the books are the ones in which Campbell writes about the prisons he was in and the violence of the prison guards. Of Scottish prisons, Campbell says in Indictment - Trial by Fire, "They say that a society can be measured by how it treats its prisoners. By this measure then, Scotland is somewhere in the sub-barbarism bracket," while, in The Wilderness Years, he describes the guards who beat him up as "mutant cockroaches." "It was difficult to write about those things because they take me back to the point in time when they were happening and they flash you back to physical pain, but also to the mental horror you went through because at the time I knew that those people could kill me any time and get away with it," Campbell told me, "I found myself in a vampires' larder and knew that any minute I could have been taken out and be the one who was going to be the next meal. To live in that state of mind every minute of every day, every day of every week, every week of every month and every month of every year, has a terrible profound effect upon your perception of society, because you end up not trusting anybody anymore, the people who are supposed to wake up respect in you, the pillars of society, have effectively become vampires, they have become the most evil thing you could ever possibly imagine, they have become the Chilean dictators who dispose of the rebels by putting them into the beef machines. Your own authorities, the people you're supposed to respect and supposed to look up to and trust, the people who are supposed to bring safety and security to your life, are the very people who are putting you through the mincing machine and they know what they're doing and you're aware that they know they're wrong. That has a profound effect upon your whole perception of life in general and you've got to live with that all the time."

The Wilderness Years also contains a report on Professor Clifford's study. "There are hundreds of people in Scottish prisons arrested on the strength of police verbal," Campbell said, "In Scotland we require corroboration, but if there is no corroboration, the police will use the verbal and say, 'you said that and that'. So what's the point of having corroboration when anybody can add whatever corroboration at any stage along the way? Police verbal was always used as corroboration when required and often the police made things up, but now they've found a way to scientifically refuse that. Professor Clifford's tests and experiments show that no four people could remember those exact words from memory, because human memory doesn't work in that way. I wish they had done that research 20 years ago, so that many people wouldn't have gone to prison. The police are just testing their bounds, how far they can go and how far the administration is letting them go. What they want is to be able to fit people up when they want."

Apart from those two books, TC Campbell wrote a while back the foreword to an edition of Jack London's The Star Rover (1999, Rebel Inc): in the book London describes the horrors of prison life. Campbell assured me nothing has changed in prison from 1915, the time in which The Star Rover was written. "They still put you in a sack," he nodded, "they chain you, handcuff you, lock you up with a padlock and carry you away naked and while you're in the sack they kick the living daylights out of you. You're kept like that till you go to the governor in the morning and if the governor says you've got to stay in the sack, you're going to stay there. Shotts Prison in Lanarkshire is supposed to be a model prison, but even in Shotts 6-8 men dressed in full riot gear - I called them 'Darth Vader's mutant cockroaches' - come to your cell and beat you up. Usually they put a sack on your head so that you can't see, then they control your breath, once you're not struggling anymore and have stopped resisting, they put you in a laundry basket with wheels on, so that you don't know where you're going, and then there's no limit to what can happen to you. As I said before, here in Scotland you have the best justice system in the world and the worst administration, in the same way as you have the best modern prisons with good facilities and then staff it with monkeys or gorillas. People who administer prisons look up to the old system and the only method of promotion within these systems is to show absolute loyalty to the man above you. So if the man above you says 'kick the shit out of a prisoner, and if you don't do it, you're going nowhere and you're not getting promoted', you have to do it. If you are a new prison officer with good intentions and high ideals, once you get into the system you're ground down and become no better and no worse than those who were there before you, because the only way to do the job without being trodden upon, is to do what you're told, everything revolves around obedience. Prison officers tell you all the time to strip, take your clothes off, raise your hands above your head and pirouette, bend over and part your buttocks for inspection. If as a prison officer you refuse to do that to a prisoner, you are degraded and put on report for offence against 'GOD', which is short for 'Good Order and Discipline'. That's the way the prison officer is conditioned and the prisoner is conditioned. It's really fascism, brainwashing fascism for prisoners and prison officers. The people who get out of prison are more likely to assault people in a robbery, because they come out of prison and hate the society and the administration of society. Prison makes them more likely to offend because violence and brutality become the only way to impose will in prison. The whole system is backwards and regressive."

After a while, Campbell finished his lunch and prepared to go out and to get her daughter from school. While he was getting ready, I asked him how were relationships with his family while he was in jail, "There was no relationship at all," he answered, "When I was in Peterhead Prison, I was only allowed one visit a month that lasted only half hour and at that time there was no motorway to Peterhead or Aberdeen. There were only country roads and narrow lanes to get there, so my family had to travel 300 miles by bad roads in terrible weather to see me. By the time they got there, they were so exhausted that all they could do was sit down and rest. They were not fully rested from their first journey, before they were on their way back. I would say that the relationship was torn apart by the whole experience."

Campbell told me in that occasion that, if he had been declared innocent by the appeal court, he would have liked to help people trapped in miscarriage of justice cases, but, before he had to make order in his life and rescue what was left in it. Perhaps, now he and Steele will be able to do it.

For further information about Indictment - Trial by Fire and The Wilderness Years - The brutality of the British prison system and one man's search for justice by TC Campbell & Reg McKay, visit

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Issue 24, June 2004

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