Deadly secrets

David Wilson's first-hand contact with serial killers while in the Prison Service has informed his work as an academic

March 27, 2008

When someone began murdering young women in Ipswich's red-light district last year, one academic was in a unique position to shed light on the psychopathic mind.

David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, worked with some of Britain's most violent criminals during a career in the Prison Service before moving into academia a decade ago.

A combination of first-hand contact with murderers and academic expertise has led to his reputation as the UK's foremost expert on serial killers. When the Ipswich killings began, Sky News asked him to assist in its coverage.

Since then, he has co-written a book Hunting Evil: Inside the Ipswich Serial Murders with Paul Harrison, a Sky journalist. Professor Wilson said it was an attempt to "take the 'true crime' genre into new territory" through his applied and theoretical work on serial killers.

He said: "I have written academically about serial killers, but I also helped to design and (then) managed the two units for the 12 most violent prisoners in the country.

"That brought me into direct contact with a number of serial killers, and when I went into academia I used that experience to inform the arguments I would make about what was happening (during events such as the Ipswich killings). If, as I have done, you eat meals with, have cups of tea with and talk to these people on a day-to-day basis for several years, you get to know how they operate."

His route into academia is certainly atypical. "I finished my PhD at Selwyn College, Cambridge, on a Friday, and on Monday I was assistant governor under training at Wormwood Scrubs," he said. "I wanted to apply philosophical ideas, and felt I could do so in relation to how prisons were run and what we should be doing to people after they had been incarcerated."

He went on to work at HM Prison Grendon, the only British prison to operate as a psychotherapeutic community, which Professor Wilson said brought him into contact with a "great number of psychopaths".

"It was after those experiences that I decided to go back into academia," he said. He joined Birmingham City University - then the University of Central England - in 1997, and was made professor of criminology.

"This week I took 50 of my final-year undergraduates into Grendon to debate with the prisoners on the motion 'We should understand a little less and condemn a little more'," he said. "I always take my final-year undergraduates into a jail, because I want them to look behind the labels that are given to offenders, to be aware of the humanity."

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