Pentonville prison, still reeling from the murder of inmate Jamal Mahmoud, is facing ongoing scrutiny over how two prisoners broke out 11 days ago. James Whitlock and Matthew Baker are believed to have carried out their escape with the help of DIY pillow mannequins, diamond-tipped cutting equipment and entry-level parkour to scale the outer wall.
In the prison I teach at, inmates caught attempting to escape are forced to wear a brightly-coloured jumpsuit instead of the standard issue tracksuit. This makes it easy to spot Kyle, who is in his early twenties, playing pool at the other end of the landing. Having been impressed by Whitlock and Baker's artisanal approach to prison escape, I ask Kyle to guide me through his failed escape.
"I saw a gate [door] open and just fucking ran mate," Kyle says. "Quick look to see if anyone was around... no one there... boosh, made a run for it." So it wasn't planned? "Nah. I'd had a bad week – proper guts-full of being treated like shit all day, every day. It was either run or end up banging out a screw [prisoner officer]."
I've heard prisoners talk about the temptation of making impromptu escape attempts before, but Kyle is the first person I've met who has actually followed through on this impulse. I ask him to explain what went wrong. "I made the run, proper adrenaline kicking in... down the corridor, through the open gate... and straight into a screw. Game over, like. He was untangling his keys on the other side of the gate. You can't make it up, bro."
But surely there would have been more gates, presumably locked ones, to get through had the officer not been there? "Yeah, true. Probably never had a chance of getting out. Fuck it – bit of a laugh, like."
Kyle clearly isn't an individual who believes in planning ahead, and as he tells me about his prior convictions – all spur of the moment mistakes and clearly destined for failure from the outset – there's an untroubled air of resignation to his fate. I ask him if he'd go for it again, if an opportunity presented itself in the future. "No – once was enough. Head down and do my time from now on, get it over and done with," he says. "And look at the state of me – I can't be walking around looking like one of the fucking Teletubbies again."
In a marked contrast to Kyle, the first thing I notice about Eric is how on edge he seems. I ask him if he's OK. "There's been a bad atmosphere on the wing all week, I'd rather be sleeping the bird [prison sentence] away on lockdown in my cell," he says. Eric is in his late forties and has two escapes under his belt from prior sentences; both attempts were failures, but only just.
"The first time we spent weeks planning it, working out all the officers' shifts, looking for patterns," Eric says. We managed to get out of the workshop and onto the main yard, then hid until the patrol were round the corner. For some fucking reason the screws decide to turn around and come back our way as we're starting to climb the wall. I just dropped off, lay on the floor and waited for them to cuff me. This one lad tried to keep on going up the wall. The screw pulls him down by his ankles and properly twists him up, dislocates his shoulder, elbows him in his nose for good measure, breaks it, blood everywhere. Out of order, but you've got to expect that."
Eric has relaxed into the conversation a bit now, and he goes on to explain what drove him to attempt the first escape. "I'd been badly advised by my solicitor. He told me if I pleaded guilty [to robbery] I'd get two years at the most. Judge goes and gives me six years. My partner had just had our youngest son, and six years felt like a fucking lifetime. I was getting all kinds of shit from the screws. I was young, the conditions in here back then [the early 90s] were atrocious. My head just went. I'd prepared for two, but six was a joke."
Having returned to prison a few years later on a drug charge, Eric tells me he was looking at nine years. "I'd made peace with it, then my old man calls and tells me he's got six months to live. They'll maybe let you out for the funeral... maybe, maybe not. But what's the point of that? I wanted to be with him when he was alive, not boxed up."
I ask how the escape attempt played out this time, and whether he changed anything about his approach. "Not really, apart from doing this one on my todd. I knew officers would be watching me, who I was talking to and that. Better alone for this one. Long story short, the screws were slacking off with the head-counts after the tea break and I managed to hide in the yard, get over the fence and then climb underneath the parked laundry van. I knew the van would be leaving in ten, maybe 15, minutes – it was just a case of whether they'd notice I was missing. They did. Lockdown. Nothing in or out of the prison walls until they find me. I look to my right and see six sets of black boots heading in my direction. I climb out and rest up on the van. We all have a laugh about it walking back to the wing; one of the screws gives me a fag – nice touch – but deep down I'm devastated. No funeral visit now, nothing."
Having spoken to both Kyle and Eric, two very different men, it strikes me that their attempted escapes were motivated by desperation and sadness rather than a specific desire to avoid doing their time. Before I leave Eric I ask him what his plan would have been had he been successful on his second escape. "Go home, have a cuppa with the old man and wait for the filth to show up. Just a little holiday, really."
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