- The Escape from Whitemoor Prison on Friday, 9 September 1994: The Woodcock Enquiry by John Woodcock
HMSO, 144 pp, £16.50, December 1994, ISBN 0 10 127412 2
On the evening of Friday, 9 September 1994, at Whitemoor Prison, a Senior Prison Officer and three of his colleagues were enjoying a game of Scrabble in the Special Security Unit (SSU), a prison within a prison. Two more officers were on duty in the SSU control room: one was watching the closed circuit television screens, the other was monitoring an outgoing call being made by an inmate. A seventh officer was reading a book in the area provided for prisoners to meet outside their cells.
The seven prison officers were waiting till 8.30 to make the last lock-up of ten of the United Kingdom’s most dangerous Category A prisoners, inmates reckoned by the Prison Service to present the very highest security risk and considered to ‘pose a danger to the public, the police or the security of the state’. The prison officers were due to finish their evening shift at 8.45, at which time they would head for home. All of them had spent a quiet, routine day in the unit, believed to be completely escape-proof.
The Whitemoor SSU is specially designed. It stands within the prison, set in 90 acres of flat open fenland in Cambridgeshire. The modern buildings of the prison complex cover part of what was once a railway marshalling yard, some two miles north of March, just off the road to Wisbech. A weld-mesh fence more than five metres in height surrounds it; beyond that there is an equally high wall particularly difficult to negotiate because at the top there is an anti-escape ‘beak’, a smooth tubular overhang with an angled protrusion on the inner face. Inside the wall and fence, behind a second concrete security wall, also more than five metres high, is the SSU, a cruciform-shaped building with the adjoining exercise yard enclosed by another weld-mesh fence. It houses 17 cells, a kitchen, showers, the TV and hobbies rooms, a study area and a gymnasium. The rest of the building consists of staff offices, plant, store rooms and the control room. ‘No matter what happened,’ the Home Office, the Prison Service and the 26 Whitemoor SSU staff believed, ‘the inmates could never get out.’
Outside in the darkness, while the duty officers carried on playing Scrabble, reading, watching the closed circuit TV and monitoring the inmate’s outgoing telephone call, six of their charges, five convicted IRA terrorists and a man with a previous record of armed prison escape, made last-minute preparations for their departure from custody. Three of the convicts wore double sets of clothing, well prepared for a long night ahead, on the run in the bleak countryside. Somewhere between the SSU buildings and the perimeter wall, unobserved by the closed circuit TV, they assembled a rope ladder, ropes, clamping devices, metal poles and cutting gear. They carried this equipment undetected across the open exercise yard and cut a hole in the wire fence. Once through the fence, which had no alarm system, they used their poles, ropes and clamp to climb the first five-metre-high wall. On the other side they cut through a further fence to make their way to the second and final five-metre-high wall. When they cut this second wire fence the alarm went off, not in the control room of the SSU, but in the Emergency Control Room of the main prison.