It has not been a good week for the UK prison system. Just days after it was announced that 2,500 additional officers will be recruited to tackle “unacceptable” levels of violence in jails, there was a riot on Sunday night at Bedford Prison. Then on Monday, news broke of the dramatic escape of two prisoners from Pentonville prison in London, where two weeks ago another prisoner was murdered.
Pentonville has been criticized by former Justice Secretary Michael Gove and by the chief inspector of prisons in several reports, after the facility had the murder and escape in a period of less than three weeks.
The escape of any prisoner over the perimeter of a Category B secure establishment is rare, but this is the second time for Pentonville, which saw the escape of convicted murderer John Massey in June 2012. The two most recent absconders have a long way to go before they enter the history books like George Blake. Blake was a former British spy who secretly worked for the Russian KGB. He was discovered and imprisoned in the notorious Wormwood Scrubs prison, where he masterminded an audacious escape with the help of fellow prisoners and a ladder made of knitting needles. He managed to flee to Russia, where he still lives to this day.
Far more common are the so-called escapes from escort, when convicts are sprung from a prison van on the way to court or between prisons. Rather than climbing a perimeter wall and dodging razor wire, a gun to the head of a poorly paid private contractor by an accomplice will see the job done with less likelihood of failure.
There have been reports that the most recent escapees (named as James Whitlock and Matthew Baker) used mannequins as decoys and had access to diamond tipped cutting equipment, but we are unlikely to find out any exact details unless all is revealed in a court case.
But any escape requires strong motive and method. John Massey’s motivation was frustration. He had seen two relatives die against a backdrop of an unsympathetic prison service and his previous failure to return from a hospital visit was harshly punished. His method was to get himself into a position of trust, to condition and manipulate those who put their faith in him, and then to make good use of gym equipment. He scaled the wall using netting from sports equipment.
Prisoners will have as many as four role checks a day with the emphasis on making sure a live person who responds – not a mannequin. But staff are human and will make mistakes, particularly if they are inexperienced, unsupported and intimidated.
When an escape involves sophisticated resources that are not freely available in a prison, the investigation will turn to the staff. There is corruption in the prison service just like any other industry, but it’s not always with criminal intent – it can often be through threat and intimidation.
Another component to examine will be the breakdown in staff-prisoner relationships. Many security breaches in prisons are thwarted because prisoners warn staff – as happened in the top security Whitemoor prison when a member of staff was caught smuggling phones in on the basis of prisoner information. This positive interaction of staff and prisoners is essential to a safe and secure prison system, and its absence creates violence and disorder.
Having got out of jail, the far more difficult task is staying out. Some may have the resources to flee abroad where extradition is tricky, but in the modern world it is difficult not to leave any kind of electronic footprint. For most who go AWOL, recapture and the likelihood of an extra 10 years on their sentence are all they have to look forward to.
John Podmore is a former prison governor.