John Podmore worked in the prison service for 25 years and governed Brixton, Belmarsh and Swaleside prisons
Published: 5 July, 2012
by JOHN PODMORE
THE escape of John Massey from Pentonville prison on June 27 poses the prison authorities two questions.
The first: how did he escape, is the easy one even if the answers are painful.
The second: why did he escape, is more difficult and likely to be ignored.
An inquiry into the escape will already have started. It will look at how he managed to get equipment to scale the perimeter; why roll checks did not find him missing after he had hid in the gymnasium and how he conditioned staff into making him became the gym orderly (the top position of trust in any jail).
Deputy heads will probably roll and systems in other jails will be reinforced.
But why did the 65-year-old Massey escape? He proved that getting out of prison is easy but that staying out is difficult. He was at large for barely 48 hours. After 34 years in custody he would have struggled with modern society and without considerable outside resources his rapid recapture was inevitable.
Massey was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1976 for killing a nightclub bouncer.
He received a tariff of 20 years, the minimum he would have to serve before the Parole Board could consider his release. Such release is facilitated through periods in open prisons and registered hostels.
Massey was sent to the latter in 2007 but failed to conform to curfew conditions to stay with his dying father. His father died after four days and Massey gave himself up although his whereabouts were hardly a secret. The release process began again in 2010 only for family tragedy to be repeated as his sister became terminally ill.
Again the system was unsympathetic and Massey absconded to be with his dying sister. This time he left the hospital and went home to his mother in Camden where he stayed for 10 months until the police got around to rearresting him. He was sent to Pentonville and told by the Parole Board in January this year that he would have to spend at least three more years in closed prisons. The board’s decision made no acknowledgement of his family tragedies.
John Massey is one of some 12,000 prisoners serving various types of indeterminate sentences in England and Wales. For many years we have had the mandatory life sentence for murder and discretionary life sentences for offences such as rape and manslaughter. But it was in 2003 that the uber-populist David Blunkett brought in the IPP, the Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection.
At a stroke 96 different offences could effectively get you a life sentence. Initially some tariffs were as low as a few months. Overnight a system was created that punished people not for what they had done, but for what they might do. The courts made full use of the sentence and thousands of IPP prisoners joined the burgeoning numbers of discretionary and mandatory lifers.
However, having created a system to incarcerate thousands government failed to create an adequate mechanism to facilitate the possibility of release.
Anyone on an indeterminate sentence, must, after they have completed their tariff, persuade the Parole Board that they are safe to let out. To support that risk assessment process the prison system offers various treatment courses for drugs, alcohol, anger management, sex offending and other so-called criminogenic factors. Except that they are too few, too narrow in their focus (you needed to be able to read and write to get on most of them) and no silver bullet. The system became overwhelmed attracting resentment not only from lifers but also from prisoners on fixed-term sentences who were put to the back of the queue in their attempts to win early release.
The Parole Board was unable to cope and became ever more risk averse. More and more prisoners passed their tariff, only to be told they needed to “do courses” which they couldn’t access.
A report by HM Chief Inspector of prisons and probation described this predicament – prisoners being unable to access the interventions they needed to secure their release very appropriately as “Kafkaesque”.
For those inside who have grasped their predicament and who have advocacy and support, their anger and resentment is increasingly palpable.
For those with mental health problems, speech and language difficulties, no family or friends, there is simply confusion and resignation over perpetual incarceration.
No one wants dangerous people released from prison. But is John Massey really dangerous? Were the people of Camden at risk when he went home to his mum to build her a conservatory while he waited for the police to knock on the door? Risk aversity, with politicians and officials blinded by the headlights of a hysterical, populist, media has its consequences.
At best they are financial. John Massey currently resides in Belmarsh, one of our most secure and therefore expensive jails at around £70,000 per prisoner per year.
At worst the anger and resentment boils over and we may find that prisoners scaling the walls are the very least of our problems.
• John Podmore is an author, journalist and criminal justice consultant. He worked in the prison service for 25 years and governed Brixton, Belmarsh and Swaleside prisons. His book Out of Sight Out of Mind: Why Britain’s prisons are failing, is published by Biteback