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Britain’s longest-serving inmate: Prison system must do more to rehabilitate

'They would rather spend £40m on a new prison instead of looking at ways to help people who have offended'

10 May, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

John Massey outside Pentonville prison

BRITAIN’S longest-serving prisoner, who was released last week after 43 years in jail, has told the New Journal of what life was like on the inside – and what he thinks the Ministry of Justice could do to help stop people re-offending.

John Massey served more than twice his original 20-year sentence for his role in the killing of doorman Charlie Higgins in 1975, partly due to his escape from custody to see dying relatives in Kentish Town. In 2012, the 69-year-old made national headlines by climbing out of Pentonville Prison to see his elderly mother before she died.

His release, revealed in last week’s New Journal, has sparked a debate, with some readers insistent that he does not deserve to feature in newsprint, while others believing his life story reveals a judicial system more interested in punishment than rehabilitation.

Mr Massey, who has spoken of his remorse for his crime, said: “The British prison system needs urgent reform to help convicts from re-offending. I’ve seen the prison population explode, and new substandard jails run by private firms. We live in a period where our justice system offers little in terms of rehabilitation or long-term help for the vulnerable. Prisons are understaffed and officers don’t get the training they should have.”

He warned of particular problems at Pentonville prison in Islington, where inmates live in antiquated conditions in a jail Mr Massey said was ridden with cockroaches and rats.

He added: “Why isn’t this country looking to Scandinavia and their penal system? The evidence says it works in terms of very low re-offending rates. Their prisons keep the public safe. They curtail prisoners’ freedom, but they also make sure the prisoner learns and changes. Instead we want to copy America, and fill up our prisons and then build more – and that is just horrendous. It is a conveyor-belt principle. It does not deal with crime or criminality, it does not deal with punishment or rehabilitation.”

Mr Massey said: “They talk about building new super-prisons, run by private companies looking to make a profit, and would rather spend £40m on a new prison instead of looking at ways to help people who have offended so they do not return.” From what he witnessed, Mr Massey believes drug use creates a raft of issues for prisoners when they were released.

“The explosion of drugs like heroin is a real problem today, as is the use of highs like Spice,” said Mr Massey. “It makes a volatile situation much worse.”

Mr Massey’s critics have said he would have been released earlier if he had not escaped, absconded or broken parole conditions on four occasions. When he broke a curfew in the 1990s, he said it was because he wanted to stay with his father.

“A doctor said: ‘Your dad will not last 24 hours’,” said Mr Massey. “I called my parole officers to ask them if I could stay with him. They said no. I couldn’t bring myself to leave. Some people may say my thinking was twisted, but if you ask me whether I have an allegiance to the Home Office or my family – it is no contest.”

The same rationale was behind his breakout from Pentonville after being refused a home visit to see his mother, May, who was seriously ill. He said: “I had to find a way of saying goodbye.”

Last week Mr Massey was given a room in a halfway house and handed £46 release money. Now he is trying to come to terms with being on the outside after so long locked up. He is facing various challenges – from the noise of the streets, to finding a GP.

He added: “I stopped making plans when my last parole did not happen. I stopped thinking about the day I might get out.”

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