The following is a letter to insidetime, from issue September 2012
Risk to life and limb’My name is Jane Massey; I am the sister of John Massey who recently escaped from Pentonville prison. I won’t bore you with the details as you can always go to the Guardian newspaper and refresh your memory. I am so frustrated at the way John has been portrayed by most of the media. At John’s latest parole hearing in January he was knocked back once again, they said, and I quote - “you are a risk to life and limb". How can this possibly be true when, in 2007, he was freed by the Parole Board and did not commit any further crimes, let alone any crimes of violence? He just breached his licence for being at our dying dad’s bedside. At worst he was disobedient. Then, when history repeated itself 2 years later, when our sister was ill he was refused a visit on the grounds of the prison not having enough staff (Carol, our sister, died too). When John was in Sudbury open prison he went out to work every day at an old people’s home, would they have let a man do that kind of job or even be allowed out to work if he was a risk? I DONT THINK SO DO YOU? John is now in Belmarsh and still hasn’t been charged, he was due in court on the 1st August but that has been put back now till the 16th October. John has written a defence document and will plead ‘Not Guilty’ as he wants his day in crown court.
John was moved yesterday from Belmarsh prison to Frankland prison in Durham, they couldn’t have moved him any further knowing our mum, who is very sick, is worsening by the day. They knew full well it was mums 1st visit tomorrow even though she is confused I kept telling her we were visiting John and that alone put a smile on her face that has been missing since her stroke in June. I phoned the Ministry of Justice this morning only to be told they won’t move John any closer to home unless it’s a matter of life and death...I’m upset and angry, who are these people that claim they want to keep families together? I was told flatly no. Mum could never visit as it’s too far and I couldn’t take the heavy duty oxygen machine that she needs with me.
John isn’t that same young man anymore it was nearly 4 decades ago that he committed his crime and we need him home before we lose mum too. Our mum is in extremely poor health she is 86. John had more freedom in open prison, than they gave him once released. It all seems back to front. Can someone please explain to me how John has suddenly become a ‘risk to life and limb’? I hope Inside Time will be able to highlight this matter as we do not know what else to do.
Enduring the rigours of the world behind prison walls has always been a gruelling experience and an unremitting struggle to survive, but for the lifer with an uncertain future the battle to survive is even more testing and he/she will be left with only the mechanism of hope to overcome the forces of despair and uncertainty.
The life sentence determines that most lifers are stuck in a rut, filled with uncertainty and foreboding of things to come or that which might not happen. When a sentence is one of life imprisonment with no date of release the lifer is re-sentenced every time a screw feels like exerting his/her authority and likewise when a probation officer or psychologist confers on a lifer a damaging label that is guaranteed to stigmatise and prolong the sentence so that the lifer can be virtually resentenced by the Parole Board.
A continuous river of ‘knockbacks’ will also kill initiative leaving behind an individual who has less faith in the system than he/she might have had or the incentives to utilise the processes to regain his or her freedom which is likely to have become aggravated by having been locked up for so long that he/she will have neither friends nor family. It’s ironic therefore that some 20 years down the road of a life sentence a probation officer will seek to know what family or support one has outside of prison. It actually becomes a feature of their reports to the Parole Board. Is it cynicism to suggest that they are asking the wrong person for they are often part of the very system that has enhanced the destruction of family life as the lifer once knew it?
There is also a notion that a released lifer will be unable to pick up the pieces of his/her life after release without some form of intervention, which is coldly patronising and, at the least, a typical response from the ‘we know best’ brigade. Is that an admission by them that prison is such a complex and awful experience that, ‘we don’t know how you will survive the change?’
The head-games continue for the peddlers of pre-judgment, risk management, clairvoyance, forecasting, prediction and fantasy. The public are lulled into believing that many offenders and ex-offenders are ‘dangerous’ when, in fact, it was but a segment of their lives perhaps decades ago. ‘Once a murderer always a murderer’ ‘once a thief always a thief’ is something often paraded out by those who should know better but then, with the pseudo-sciences of psychology and psychiatry being relied on so heavily, the authorities play safe by over-predicting. Such is the lack of the scientific nature of both professions. Rather than risk a misjudgement, the authorities prefer to prolong a lifer’s detention and in so doing tend to apply the ‘catch all’ that includes those who might otherwise be of no risk to anyone. In any event, most lifers are not seasoned offenders and for those that are they cannot afford to resume a criminal lifestyle on release. For them it is finished, for the likely outcome of committing further crime is one where the lifer could be returned to prison from which he/she might never emerge again.
Indeed, of all offender groups it is lifers who have the lowest reoffending rates. Which is how it has always been and recalls to prison for them remain at the bottom end of the scale.
It was in 2009, that I was informed that under the Crime Sentences Act 1987, ‘The Secretary of State hereby authorises the release on licence within fifteen days of the date hereof of Charles Hanson who shall on release and during the period of this licence comply with the following conditions or any other condition, which may be substituted or added from time to time’. This was followed by ten conditions concluding that; ‘unless revoked this licence remains in force indefinitely’.
Re-joining the world outside prison was not as foreboding an experience as might be imagined, having spent a lengthy period in open conditions where I undertook community work as a driver for a charity, was permitted to undertake periods of home leaves and weekly days out to visit family. The real test was going to be complying with all the conditions of the life licence so that I would avoid being returned to prison by my supervising probation officer. And, knowing full well how the Probation Service interpret risk, I have always avoided that which provides them with ammunition to recall me. Of course, the Parole Board had determined that my risk was low enough that I should be released but this is of little comfort because from being low risk it’s a quick step for the Probation Service to inflate that for even the most minor of transgressions. A missed or late appointment can increase my fitness to be at large to ‘high risk’, indeed that I am dangerous. Quite how that link is made is unclear and baffles me, indeed it beggars belief.
The recent case of John Massey, a lifer, who has served over 32 years of his life sentence (now aged 64) and was released on licence in 2007 exemplifies just how easy it is for the Probation Service and, indeed, the Parole Board to inflate risk when no real risk exists. Following his release John was ordered to reside in a probation hostel which is hardly a good start given that he had spent a significant part of his life surrounded by offenders. I always thought that on release it was in one’s best interests to avoid offenders not live with them!
John had a staunch and loyal family he could have returned to and it was a member of his family, his father, who, being terminally ill in hospital, meant John had to ask for an extended curfew from the hostel to spend some time with him. It was refused. John did what I believe many ex-offenders would have done, he refused to accept that decision and took unauthorised leave from the hostel to visit his father. After four days his father died and John gave himself up. It is hardly the crime of the century and deserving of no more than a ‘slap on the wrist’. John knew that he was at fault and accepts that but it was the response of the Probation Service and the Parole Board that’s at issue here. Recall to prison. In May 2010, whilst at Ford Open Prison and looking ahead to being re-released, another tragedy struck with John’s sister becoming gravely ill. She asked to see John and as he was in open conditions one might have thought he would have fared better with a positive decision and been given leave at least on compassionate grounds to visit her. But John’s freedom to walk around HMP Ford did not extend to a freedom to leave the prison even under escort. Again John did what any loved one might have done, he took his own leave and left the prison to spend the next two weeks with his sister until she died. This time he did not give himself up but stayed unlawfully at large for ten months until the police came looking for him at his mothers’ and he was returned to prison.
On 27 June 2012, John escaped from Pentonville Prison by climbing over the wall. He was at large for four days until he was arrested in Kent. Walking out of an open prison or absenting oneself from a probation hostel is one thing, embarrassing the prison authorities indeed the state is an entirely different matter and something they may yet give ‘pay back’. Not once since his legitimate release on life licence in 2007 has John re-offended and it could be argued that John has been pushed into many corners that could have been avoided had management given regard to his very personal but tragic circumstances.
It is now some five years since John was released on life licence and to have suffered the loss of two of his family members in that time should have been something the Probation Service, the Parole Board and indeed the Prison Service should have given currency to and made some allowances for as it was able to do.
The continued detention of John Massey has been justified on the grounds of his dangerousness and his risk to the public. Hello! On what basis I may ask. It was in 1988 that an important decision was handed down in a judicial review hearing which became known as the Benson Test after R v Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Benson [21 November 1981] (Unreported), in which Mr Justice Lloyds held that if risk to the public is the test, that risk must mean risk of dangerousness and that nothing else would suffice and would mean risk of repeating the kind of offence for which the original life sentence was imposed.
I conclude with a statement made in July 1910 when Winston Churchill said:
“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.
A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the state, and even of convicted criminals against the state, a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes, and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it.”
In John Massey’s case there have been massive failings and lack of compassion, understanding and regard and this can happen to any lifer for nothing has been learned from Churchill’s statement by those for whom rehabilitation seems to be empty of meaning.