A Morbid Curiosity

Matthew is sitting on the sole item of furniture he owns, a second hand futon that sits in the corner of his studio flat. I sit crossed legged on the floor.

 ‘It’s a gross violation of my human rights. I’m not going to stand for it, no matter how high up I have to go’, he tells me.

  In front of us is a thick folder of correspondence which consists of dozens of letters. These are the responses he has received from his MP, the chief executive of the local probation service as well as many more from the dozens of solicitors he has engaged in his two year battle for justice. I notice one letter, pretty much blank except for a few lines of text, which displays the crest of Buckingham Palace.

 ‘I refuse to roll over and accept what they are telling me. Just like I refused to accept the prognosis the doctors gave me when I was first diagnosed’.

 You wouldn’t at first glance know that he has Multiple Sclerosis. He was until recently in remission after being accepted on a clinical trial for a new drug treatment. A slight limp in his left leg is the only sign of any problems with mobility but he knows he is likely to get worse. He’s waiting for the council to adapt the flat, putting handrails in the bathroom and kitchen, a process that is forever being delayed because of how often he has been forced to move in the last eighteen months. This is his fourth flat, but he feels settled here and is just waiting on his grant to be approved before the work can be done.

 ‘I think what it comes down to is they just don’t want me to have a functioning life of any kind. Despite me serving my sentence and paying any debt I have to society. I genuinely believe they won’t be happy until I curl up and die’

 The knock for Matthew came early in the morning, around six thirty. There were ten officers in all, some in uniform, but most in plain clothes. Their fleet of cars blocked the entrance to the flats and stopped his neighbours from driving the kids to school. They had all been asking what was happening but the police didn’t give anything away, although by the time they’d seen his desktop and laptop removed in forensic evidence bags word had quickly spread. Around ten hours later, at the point where the police custody sergeant was refusing bail, all his windows had been smashed in and the word NONCE had been painted across his door.

 In his living room the coffee table was still littered with empty wine bottles, the sink full of dirty dishes, CD’s scattered across his floor. When he asked to get dressed and a female officer had escorted him to the bedroom to find some trousers, she noticed the many black bin liners filled with dirty laundry that covered the floor. Sighing at the thought that her and the team would need to go through every one before they left the scene. Although the flat was small, little more than a bedsit really, she knew they would be spending the rest of today’s shift collecting evidence, even pulling up the floorboards if necessary. A USB stick could be hidden in the smallest gap, and a CD placed in the spine of one of his hundreds of books.

 He would tell the team in his later interview that he was glad they had knocked on his door when they had. Aware enough to realise that recently things had been escalating, especially his drinking, to the point where he knew he risked getting into trouble.

 The forensic investigator charged with reviewing the thousands of files found on Matt’s hard drive claimed they were among the worst he had come across in his ten year career. Of the 15,000 images logged only two were of adults. All the others were of children ranging from six months to ten years old. Starting with grainy images of naked toddlers scanned from the type of nudist magazines that were once commonly available on the shelves of local newsagent, eventually going deeper and deeper until their work started to mirror Dante’s descent into hell. There were both stills and video footage, all ranging in severity, the investigators appalled to discover one clip called ‘Five Year Old Torture’ that featured a child being abused with a hypodermic syringe. He couldn’t remember ever watching that one, explaining that he was most likely drunk when he downloaded it. He was always drunk when it happened. He’d been in touch with an alcohol support agency but had struggled to make the appointments.

 ‘Morbid Curiosity’ is a term the police hear time and time again when dealing with offenders charged with downloading indecent images. Matthew was no different, giving it as a defence over and over again when the detective sergeant had asked him in interview what his motivation was in stockpiling such a vast collection.

 ‘Did you masturbate over the images?’ she’d asked. Over and over again. ‘Sometimes’, he’d replied, becoming frustrated that he was being forced to repeat this. Almost as if they wanted to keep shaming him long after he’d confessed.

 After serving his prison sentence, he was housed by a Christian charity under close supervision by his probation officer. Families in the scheme would always take priority over single tenants and he had been moved so much because part of his release conditions were he was unable to be in close proximity to anyone under the age of eighteen. Angry and unsettled he had stopped taking his medication as a protest until his social worker had found him a flat in a section designed to house prolific offenders. His immediate neighbours now consisted of house breakers, addicts and persistent car thieves, their used works littering the outside flower beds and rotting rubbish bags blocking the hallways.

 His quest for justice had been motivated by a minor incident that occurred when he’d received a benefit payment aimed at covering disability expenses. A cheque had arrived and he’d decided to treat himself, buying a flat screen TV and a games console. He’d spend days locked in the flat, barely going out, playing games online with virtual friends from across the world. People that didn’t know his offending history. People who didn’t judge. He started drinking again and his MS symptoms came back. Finding himself unable to walk the short distance to the local shop he became reliant on online supermarket deliveries. This the reason for his ultimate downfall. One morning his probation officer had made an unannounced visit and was surprised to bump into a delivery driver in his hallway. Within thirty minutes the police were back at his door, arresting him for breaching the licence condition that stated he was banned from ever going online.

 ‘I’ve never done anything to hurt a child’, he often says. ‘How could I after what happened to me’

 His Dad had been convicted in the 1970’s. Matthew was seven, his brother five. Things worked differently back then. None of the family had received any social services support. There were no counselling appointments booked. His Mum had struggled and eventually both of them were taken into care. He had struggled, finding it difficult forming friendships, unable to really trust anyone.

It’s now almost eleven months since he was arrested and no further charges have been brought, but the idea that the police haven’t returned his PlayStation is making him apocalyptic with rage. Hence the letters, sometimes ten a day, to anyone he thinks can help him. As we sit in his flat you can sometimes hear shouting and loud banging when someone passes by his door. There are scorch marks around his letterbox, caused by his neighbours pushing through lit sheets of newspaper, a baking tray filled with water placed on his inside door matt to prevent the risk of a fire taking hold. Now he only leaves the flat when the ambulance comes to collect him for hospital appointments, taking advantage of the crew’s good nature, when they sometimes allow him to stop off at the supermarket on the way home to buy essentials. 

‘The best way to describe it is I feel like I’m part of some dark experiment’, Matthew says. ‘Society just doesn’t know what to do with people like me and as a result all our human rights are being trampled on’. There are so many of us I think it would shock people’, he says. ‘At least 50,000 people are thought to be doing what I did. At least according to the NSPC. What’s the plan? To put all of them in prison?’

This is the reason why the letters will continue, sent to anyone who might provide a sympathetic ear. Matthew also talks of direct action, of other men he’s been in contact with prepared to go public and openly discuss what they perceive as the draconian legal measures they have faced. At one stage Matthew even uses the word ‘victim’ in reference to what he’s been through but I stay mute, reluctant even in these extreme circumstances to directly challenge him given my position as his house guest.

 As I leave, concerned I’ll be spotted walking down the hallway by Matthew’s neighbours, he sends me a text, most likely from a smart phone that I’m guessing would represent a serious breach of his licence conditions: ‘just try and get across that I’m no monster’, it says.

 I’ve tried Matthew. I really have.