May 22 2024
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On the Pentonville prison escapee

On the Pentonville prison escapee

John Massey, 64, escaped from Pentonville prison in Islington at around 6.30pm on Wednesday 27th June using a makeshift rope. Pentonville houses up to 1,250 category B and C male prisoners, rather than the most serious category A offenders. Scotland Yard advised members of the public not to approach the ‘potentially dangerous offender’ and within days Massey had been recaptured. An investigation into how he managed to elude staff is due to be launched by the prison service.

Massey was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Charlie Higgins, a doorman, outside a pub in Hackney in 1975. At 35 years and counting, he is one of Britain’s longest-serving prisoners. His escape garnished a lot of media coverage in large part because his index offence and escape history but also because of the set of family circumstances which led him to make the decisions he made.

Massey was first released on parole from an open prison in Derbyshire in June 2007. But he breached the terms of his curfew in order that he could remain at the bedside of his father who – he’d been told by doctors – only had a very short time to live. A one off request to probation for a curfew extension to allow him tot remain by the bedside had been refused. When his father died Massey gave himself up to the police straight away and was immediately recalled to prison.

Danger to the public
In May 2010, he had again been de-categorised and sent to another open jail, Ford, in West Sussex. It was there that he was told that his sister Carole was now terminally ill. After being refused temporary release on licence (ROTL) and after a further request for release with a prison escort was also turned down (because of staff shortages), Massey walked out of the prison in order to be with his sister. He stayed by her bedside for two weeks until her death – and without the police authorities seemingly making much of an effort to locate him – perhaps reflecting his true ‘potential’ danger to the public. This time however he did not hand himself in, and after leaving the hospital went to stay with his mother until he was tracked down 10 months later and returned to jail. You can read the Guardian’s Eric Allison’s interview with John Massey HERE.

John Massey is not the first prisoner and will certainly not be the last whose request to visit a dying relative has been turned down. So how difficult is it to get the agreement of the authorities for release, albeit temporary, in order to deal with family tragedy?

Agreeing to a one off extension of curfew whilst a prisoner is on life or other licence is entirely within the discretion of the probation authorities. It is anybody’s guess as to why Massey’s request was not granted back in 2007 but the increasingly risk averse culture surrounding probation and supervision is probably as good a starting point as any.

I also don’t know what type of temporary release was requested by Massey back in 2010. However I would guess that it was for a ’special purpose licence’ – a form of temporary release granted to prisoners in exceptional, personal circumstances. It is designed to cover things like visits to dying relatives, funerals or other tragic circumstances and also to allow a prisoner to look after children under 16 or elderly relatives and to whom respectively they have parental responsibility or a sole caring role.

Clogging up the system
Guidance on the use and types of temporary release are set out in Prison Service Order (PSO) 6300 – prisoners can apply for a ‘special purpose licence’:

  • Unless specifically excluded from all types of ROTL (such as Category A prisoners, those on the escape list or subject to extradition proceedings etc) and;
  • The licence will normally be granted for the period of time necessary to achieve the ‘stated purpose’ and can be extended to cover overnight absences at the discretion of the governor.

For a life sentenced prisoner like Massey, there are also further requirements that need to be met. Lifers will only be eligible for ROTL, including special purpose licence, if they are held in open conditions. They must also have spent a certain amount of time in open conditions, dependant on the length of time until their next parole review as calculated from the date of their arrival in open conditions. Any request for temporary release is subject to a rigorous risk assessment and the probation service must be consulted to ensure that any victim issues are addressed.

Speaking to the Guardian about John Massey’s breach of the rules, the former chief inspector of prisons Lord Ramsbotham said that ‘of course, technically, Massey [was] in the wrong’. ‘But that’s no excuse for clogging up an expensive system with people from whom the public do not seem to need to be protected.’

Overly bureaucratic
John Massey now has a further escape and capture added to his prison CV. The prison service will be keen to find out how the escape was allowed to happen. However there is no suggestion that John Massey ever posed a risk to the public or committed further criminal offences during his recent escape or that he ever did so during his other longer periods at large (including a three year period on the run following an escape in 1994).

Most people – I would hazard a guess – might too – faced with a similarly impossible scenario have chosen to be with their dying relatives rather than accept what appears, on the face of it, to have been a series of overly bureaucratic, harsh decisions around very human requests.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of his latest actions, it cannot be in doubt that they will have dealt a profound and potentially fatal impact on John Massey’s chances of ever being released again. Massey’s index offence could not of course have been more serious but given his age, his current risk to the public, and personal history, I would seriously question whether it should be the ‘death knell to his future release even accepting that ‘technically’ he may have been in the wrong.