Yesterday 23 year old Laura Cunliffe was sentenced to 14 weeks imprisonment for microwaving a kitten to death. Apparently the kitten, Mowgli, had attacked her pet goldfish so she put it in the microwave for 5 minutes. She realised what she had done after a minute and took it out. It died about 90 minutes later.
It is always unwise to comment on a case without knowing the full facts but, on the basis of what has been reported, here goes.
This was an absurd punishment, not because killing cats is a trivial matter but because Cunliffe is quite clearly somebody who ought not to be in gaol. According to her solicitor she has suffered from psychotic depression for years and has been sectioned at least 20 times. As she was led away in handcuffs, one member of her family shouted: “She doesn’t know what’s happening – she hasn’t a clue.”
Psychotic depression is a nasty illness:
According to the United States National Institute of Mental Health:
“a person who is psychotic is out of touch with reality. People with psychosis may hear “voices.” Or they may have strange and illogical ideas. For example, they may think that others can hear their thoughts or are trying to harm them. Or they might think they are possessed by the devil or are wanted by the police for having committed a crime that they really did not.
People with psychotic depression may get angry for no apparent reason. Or they may spend a lot of time by themselves or in bed, sleeping during the day and staying awake at night. A person with psychotic depression may neglect appearance by not bathing or changing clothes. Or that person may be hard to talk to. Perhaps he or she barely talks or else says things that make no sense.
… those with psychotic depression usually have delusions or hallucinations that are consistent with themes about depression (such as worthlessness or failure), whereas psychotic symptoms in schizophrenia are more often bizarre or implausible and have no obvious connection to a mood state (for example, thinking strangers are following them for no reason other than to harass them). People with psychotic depression also may be humiliated or ashamed of the thoughts and try to hide them. Doing so makes this type of depression very difficult to diagnose.”
We do not know, of course, whether her psychosis contributed directly to her offence, although it seems very likely that it did. What we do know is that she is someone who is exceptionally mentally vulnerable and who now has to endure weeks locked up in prison.
She will be used to being locked up: although her solicitor’s reported claim that she has been sectioned twenty times sounds extremely unlikely.
But there is all the difference in the world between the therapeautic environment of a mental health unit and the punitive and sometimes violent environment of a prison. If she is indeed mentally ill, it is all but inevitable that prison will aggravate her condition.
Of course she should have some access to psychiatric help in prison but she will, in the main, be looked after by prison officers who – decent as many of them may be – have little or no training in how to deal with people with serious mental disorders. She will also be exposed to other inmates who are not selected for their sympathetic and enlightened nature towards the mentally ill. Many ,of them will probably take an old-fashioned and unnuanced line on cruelty to cats.
No conceivable good will come of the sentence. It is hard to imagine that anyone in the future will be deterred from microwaving a cat by the thought that they may receive a 14 week gaol sentence. There may even be some unimaginative folk, to whom the idea of irradiating a cat would not otherwise have occurred, who will now try it out.
Nor is there the slightest prospect that Miss Cunliffe will be “rehabilitated” or “reformed”. She will be mentally tortured for seven weeks and then released sadder and sicker than she was before.
English law has always excelled at dishing out cruel and pointless punishments. We have abolished the treadmill, oakum picking, the lash and the gallows.
It’s about time we now abolished gaol sentences for the mentally ill.