I notice that it didn't take long for 'escaped' life sentence prisoner John Massey to be apprehended and for the Guardian to weigh in with some comment. In essence the article is confirming what I suspect is the private view of a lot of prison officers at HMP Pentonville that 'John has done his bird and should have got out years ago'.
I have a degree of sympathy with this view and personal experience of similar cases where some life sentence prisoners feel passionately that 'keeping a clean and tidy cell and being respectful to staff' will be enough to warrant release after the passage of a suitable period of time. Unfortunately it doesn't work like this with regard to life sentences. In order to progress through the prison system, let alone be released, the prisoner must co-operate with risk assessments and undertake courses designed to demonstrate that they are safe to release. Failure to co-operate, or worse show disdain or disregard for the directions of the Parole Board, probation service or psychology, inevitably means that meaningful risk assessments cannot be carried out and therefore no progress towards release can be achieved.
What tends to happen, and John Massey's case seems to confirm this, is that a disgruntled prisoner decides to take some direct action of some sort as a demonstration against what they perceive as an unfair system. As a result they are inevitably punished, progress is reversed and any move towards release is delayed yet further. Way beyond his tariff, this is what has happened to this prisoner, and significant numbers of others in similar situations. As others have discovered, no amount of facebook popularity, letters to politicians, petitions or articles in the Guardian will change the way that the system works, as long as we have indeterminate sentences for very serious offences such as rape and murder. As a consequence, there has to be a fair and transparent system for determining release, and that has at its core in-depth considerations of public safety.
I have written at length on the topic of risk aversion. Intensive media attention in recent years concerning high profile murders, particularly by those known to statutory bodies such as the probation service, has ensured that the whole system is risk-averse. The public cannot have it both ways. We either return to the realistic situation when I started out that meant there was very little chance of spotting the propensity of someone to commit awful crimes. Or we accept that awful things are done by some people and give up seeking to blame some hapless individual who failed to have a bloody crystal ball. We have to decide if it's appropriate to stick with the current risk-averse situation where everyone is scared witless about the possibility of being pilloried by the commission of a Serious Further Offence, or we get a bit more real.
Yes in Mr Massey's case "the probation service had other ideas and insisted he went to a hostel". In many cases, especially where there is a settled family situation to return to, it's a complete waste of time and counter-productive (as in this case) but you can bet it wasn't the probation officer that insisted on that. Much more likely to have either been a MAPPA decision influenced by probation service managers, or if not in the full MAPPA arena, then just a management directive borne of fear not common sense. I know because I've pleaded with management not to insist on a hostel placement for an offender being released, but was over-ruled on the basis of 'what if something happens' - not judgement.
PS Since publishing this post, I notice the latest edition of 'Inside Time' has an interesting article by a man on Life Licence and about life sentences.