Saturday, 30 June 2012
The day I met Britain's most daring prison escapee
Earlier this year I travelled to Pentonville prison with the Guardian’s prison correspondent, Eric Allison, to meet the inmates behind the prison magazine Voice of the Ville. Among them was John Massey, a 64 year old man serving life for a murder committed nearly 40 years ago.
When we met there seemed little prospect of him ever being released, so I was somewhat alarmed to hear of his successful bid for freedom this week in the form of a classically daring escape - climbing over the prison walls and onto the streets of London to become the nation’s most wanted man.
Massey had been granted parole and released in 2007 before being recalled back to prison indefinitely several months later for breaching his terms of licence. He had broken an 11pm curfew to be present at the deathbed of his terminally ill father, before handing himself in four days later.
After several years behind bars he suffered further misfortune when his sister fell seriously ill.
Denied permission to visit her he walked out of Ford open prison, and when she died went to live with his mother in Camden. He remained at large for 10 months before the police arrested him and he was once again sent back to prison – this time Pentonville.
My encounter with Massey was brief – we sat around a table with a group of 12 inmates for around an hour to discuss everything from politics to prison life and justice. Massey was quiet, polite and clearly popular with the other, younger inmates who seemed to warm to him and regard him as a father figure. He didn’t speak often, but in his letters he wrote candidly about his forthcoming parole hearing. He wasn’t sufficiently naïve to be optimistic and was denied parole weeks later.
Under these circumstances it comes as little surprise that Massey sought to escape, and many will feel a sense of justice that he succeeded.
Perhaps the most farcical aspect of this saga, though, is the police description of Massey as a “dangerous” criminal whom the public should avoid approaching. Furthermore, despite the facts of the case being well publicised, large sections of the media have reported this unchallenged.
Even before meeting Massey it would have been illogical of me to suspect he posed any danger to me or anyone else. After all, he was considered safe enough by a parole board to be released back into society. Since then the only crime he has committed is to be a loving brother and son who naturally wished to be by the side of his dying sister and father.
Two days after his escape Massey was captured and the prison service have since announced they will press for heavy penalties. Of those who have followed the case closely, however, many will feel sympathy for a man who has already suffered enough at the hands of a system which he believes has failed him.