The Escape from Whitemoor Prison on Friday, 9 September 1994: The Woodcock Enquiry 
by John Woodcock.
HMSO, 144 pp., £16.50, December 1994, 0 10 127412 2
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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.

At 8.10 p.m. the duty officers inside the SSU were roused by a telephone call from the Emergency Control Room. The alarms rang, and the closed circuit TV screens showed pictures of the six inmates, blithely climbing the outer wall. The officers dashed into the exercise yard, crawled through the hole in the first fence and saw two escapers climbing the nearest wall and a third astride it. The leading prison officer made a desperate attempt to grab the escapers’ rope and dislodge the two who had almost reached the top of the wall. The man astride the wall produced a gun and opened fire. The prison officer fell back wounded. Some of his colleagues managed to drag him to the safety of the exercise yard. Several other officers, joined by dog-handlers, reached the outer wall only to find another escaper barring their way with a gun. Another shot was fired. Four of the escapers could now be seen on top of the second and outer wall. One by one they dropped down outside the prison and ran off north along the perimeter road. Here, reinforcements with dog-handlers joined the manhunt. Pepper was thrown at the dogs and seemed effectively to disable them. One of the escapers told the pursuers to back off. When they refused to do so, he opened fire; no one was injured.

Within a short distance of the prison one of the escapers became isolated from the rest and the officers in pursuit managed to arrest him. The remaining five made their way along a disused railway track recently designated a trail for nature lovers. Three of them, possibly believing their pursuers to be armed, gave themselves up to police officers positioned ahead of them on a bridge. The police were, in fact, equipped only with powerful flashlights. The flashlight ruse, if that’s what it was, failed to scare the remaining two escapers, who headed into the fenland darkness. About an hour and a half after the break-out, a police helicopter using a thermal imager guided police on the ground to their hiding place. The last two escapees were arrested and escorted back to prison.

Whitemoor holds roughly 530 prisoners, over eighty of whom are Category A inmates. About thirty are high-risk prisoners, thought to constitute the greatest threat to the public. There are more than a hundred murderers and sundry terrorists, 170 violent sex offenders and about 180 men convicted of serious robberies and drugs offences. 114 are serving life sentences, including Dennis Nilsen, who strangled 16 young men at his flat in North London. A year ago the paedophile, Leslie Bailey, was murdered in his cell. There is a greater concentration of high-security prisoners at Whitemoor than at any other jail in Britain.

On Saturday, 10 September, the day after the Whitemoor escape, the Home Secretary asked a former Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir John Woodcock, ‘to enquire into the circumstances of the escape and to recommend any action that should be taken to avoid any recurrence’.

Within a month of the Report’s publication, matters in the Prison Service were very much worse. Frederick West, the unconvicted killer of 12 young women in Gloucester, committed suicide on New Year’s Day behind the locked door of his cell on Landing D3 in Birmingham’s Winson Green prison, having made a noose from strips of bedding. West had repeatedly threatened suicide, yet constant surveillance was thought unnecessary. A prison officer found him hanging unconscious; to no avail, he tried the kiss of life. On 2 January, a hundred inmates rioted at Eversthorpe Prison in Hull, doing more than £30,000 worth of damage. The following day two convicted murderers and an arsonist escaped from Park-hurst (maximum security prison) on the Isle of Wight, using a key manufactured during metal-work classes, bolt cutters and a ladder. It was over two hours before the alarm was raised and nearly a week before they were back in custody. In all these cases there had been prior warnings of lax security. The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, commented obliquely and absurdly that current searching practice ‘exceeds required levels’.

On 8 January three more prisoners escaped from Littlehey near Huntingdon. One was a rapist (a Category A offender) with Category C status, a fact which raised anxiety about questions of space and economy determining the classification of British convicts. The men hired a taxi to Peterborough station. It now looks rather easier to get out of the nation’s jails than to enter them, as Derek Lewis, the Director General of the Prison Service, discovered on 6 January when he was kept waiting for an hour outside the gate of a prison near Parkhurst, on the Isle of Wight, where he had gone (appropriately) to present an ironmongery award.

Lewis’s reaction to being shut out of his own prison was far less furious than Sir John Woodcock’s to events at Whitemoor. Sir John has warmed considerably to the task in hand: the compilation of what he calls his ‘withering Report ... an awful story where it appears that everything which could have gone wrong has in fact done so’. Prevented from naming names by the possibility of future criminal proceedings, Sir John hurls abuse in the general direction of un-named officials and bureaucrats with tremendous energy. He and his team have interviewed over a hundred prison officers, former ministers of state, past and present director generals of the Prison Service, prison governors and everyone ‘with line command or policy formation responsibility’. The six inmates who escaped ‘were given the opportunity to be interviewed by the Enquiry Team but all declined’. Thus, to a considerable extent, Sir John’s hands were tied. He had, above all, to avoid compromising the criminal enquiry into the escape and was bound, if not gagged, by the sub judice rules. His Enquiry had no disciplinary function; his almost impossible aim was ‘to target the truth and individuals ... to reduce the temptation to seek scapegoats for errors and omissions which led to the escape’. In spite of these constraints, for which many in authority must be rather relieved, he says his team is ‘totally satisfied that the truth has been established.’

Sir John leaves us in no doubt that people he cannot name have committed repeated demonstrable violations of the Prison Service’s primary Statement of Purpose, Vision, Goals and Values. This vaunted Statement of Purpose, published by the Home Office over a year ago and presented to Parliament by Michael Howard, who takes no personal responsibility for the fact that it is so blatantly contradicted by events, will be of interest to anyone remotely concerned by the present chaotic state of the criminal justice system. ‘Her Majesty’s Prison Service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts.’ The Home Secretary’s ‘vision is to provide a service, through both directly managed and contracted prisons, of which the public can be proud and which will be regarded as a standard of excellence around the world.’ Sir John has triumphantly shown that this is a chimera. The events at Whitemoor Prison, he tells us, were ‘farcical’, ‘scandalous,’ ‘devastating’, ‘disgraceful’, ‘inconceivable’, ‘dangerous’, ‘unprofessional’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘outrageous’ and ‘frankly unforgivable’. With an air of exhaustion, he states that they ‘have left many individuals deeply wounded and ashamed. The story is one of a disaster waiting to happen. So many things were wrong, so many procedures and policies totally ignored and with such regularity that the escape could have taken place on any day of the week with the same chance of success.’

The escapers presumably manufactured and hid their elaborate gear, including over two hundred feet of rope, in the hobbies room, where there was no closed circuit, even though the officers on duty were supposed to know exactly what the inmates were doing at all times. One inmate even had the cheek to complain that there was no privacy in the hobbies room. In the interests of humanity or, more likely, out of sheer fear of their terrorist charges, the officers of the SSU allowed the window to be covered by a sheet, which was eventually replaced by net curtains. Other inmates may also have set to work manufacturing the escape gear in the TV room, where the windows were shaded in greater style by Venetian blinds. The windows to the gymnasium were obscured by a large refrigerator. Not even the perspicacious Sir John seems to know the connection between large refrigerators and aerobics. ‘Nothing short of scandalous,’ is how he describes the reduced ability of the SSU staff to monitor activity in communal areas.

To build prisoners’ morale, but against all the rules, relatives, friends and prison officers were allowed to deliver countless take-away meals from local restaurants. These arrived suitably warm in silver foil containers as did fresh deliveries of bread. No limit was imposed on the amount of cash a prisoner might spend on ordering grand foodstuffs; neither was a limit imposed on the number and duration of free telephone calls a prisoner could make to his suppliers or anyone else throughout the United Kingdom or overseas.

Prison officers took days off to travel up to twenty-five miles to collect special, sealed food orders. On one memorable day, 16 fillet steaks and 24 lamb chops, previously ordered over the handy prison telephone, were picked up from a friendly local butcher. One gourmet inmate took delivery of new potatoes from a prison officer and finding them a touch too small, threw the lot in the officer’s face. In January 1994 the Home Secretary received a protest from a visitor to the prison, Lady Olga Maitland, about these shenanigans. ‘Lady Olga didn’t mention security,’ he observed. ‘She didn’t mention any of the things we subsequently discovered went on.’ Howard is not a man who recognises the tip of an iceberg when he sees it.

It is obvious that the traffic of foodstuffs was a perfect cover for smuggling prohibited items into the SSU. After the escape, which involved the use of two handguns and eight rounds of ammunition, a substantial quantity of detonators and fuses was discovered, to say nothing of a pound of Semtex found, almost two weeks later, in the false bottom of an artist’s paintbox. We have not been told how this lethal quantity of high explosive was successfully smuggled into the prison and hidden for so long. Contrary to an assurance from an unnamed civil servant given to an unnamed minister, the X-ray search equipment at Whitemoor was ineffectual and the obvious precaution of rub-down searching had been abandoned.

The IRA prisoners and their families did not like this type of search and made their objections plain. In 1992 compulsory rub-down searches at Whitemoor were suspended; visitors were merely ‘liable’ to be searched in this way. Sir John’s account of this and other ‘unbelievably lax’ security measures is sobering. The SSU staff, he writes,

including the Senior Officers, were confined within a situation where they were forced to exist cheek by jowl with these dangerous inmates. In respect of the IRA terrorists, they were working with a group with the proven ability to exert their power within and outside the prison system. Experience of colleagues in Northern Ireland had shown that the terrorists were prepared to strike at the homes and families of prison staff. Intimidation by such men did not need to be through overt actions.

The issue of rub-down searching was passed from the Home Office Prison Department to the Minister and back again for 17 months, without other ministers being informed of the suspension. Sir John comments: ‘It has been pointed out that ... the handling of actual or potential trouble in SSUs was the sort of operational matter that ministers might expect to be informed about.’ He reiterates the idea that laxity at Whitemoor was a kind of ‘appeasement’: ‘At a juncture in history where the IRA ceasefire was in force, and with movement towards some form of peace accord, the media also alleged a political motive to some or all of the additional privileges.’ Whatever the case, Whitehall’s prevarication on compulsory rubdown searches – which have been reinstated since the break-out – is extraordinary.

Once the six prisoners’ escape plans were underway, as anyone who remembers such movies as The Wooden Horse will recognise, there remained the problem of where to store their tell-tale gear. In fact, the SSU was jammed up with vast quantities of storage boxes; in one case an inmate had no fewer than three hundred items of personal property, including Dior, Givenchy and Lacoste fashion accessories, stored in 23 different boxes. It is not too difficult to understand why the staff failed to complete the required search procedures, thus easily solving the storage problem.

The tenor of life in Whitemoor, with its many diversions, greatly helped the escapers. The trick was to occupy the minds of the prison officers. In retrospect it seems everyone fell for it. Sir John reports that even the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Judge Stephen Tumin, had been ‘relatively uncritical of the regime and practices at Whitemoor SSU’. Yet the picture painted by Sir John of serious and violent incidents at the prison during the four months preceding the escape is terrifying. There were no fewer than 17 assaults by inmates on prison officers (excluding one on the governor himself) and one on a nurse; 11 assaults by inmates on inmates; nine fires; two attempted suicides; one attempted hostage-taking; five incidents of drug abuse; two brawls, one involving a knife; sundry sit-down protests and one full lock-change. It is impossible that anyone should have imagined things were running normally. On New Year’s Eve, however, Howard insisted, in the face of Sir John’s findings, that ‘there was no warning of any kind which indicated a security risk at Whitemoor.’

Most of Sir John’s recommendations involve new management and security approaches which should have been made long ago. Staff and visitors will now be properly searched on arrival and all those entering the SSU will be subject to a proper rub-down search, X-ray inspection and a search by metal detectors. Deliveries to the prison will be held in a separate building until they are examined. A new 40-foot fence is to be erected and the closed circuit system will be improved. Progress made in the implementation of Sir John’s 64 recommendations is to be reviewed by an independent body before the end of this year.

The focus of attention will be Whitemoor itself, a leaking flagship of the Prison Service, constructed in 1991 at a cost of £58 million – almost three times the initial estimate – and opened, with a fanfare, by Norma Major. But the issue of prison security and prison management is now much broader. Whitemoor is no more than one instance in a series of drastic set-backs for the Service, beleaguered by market initiatives and government penny-pinching (despite earlier requests by the sacked governor, John Marriott, a touch-sensitive alarm was not installed on the SSU perimeter wire at Park-hurst). The disarray in Britain’s jails is in turn only one sad strand in the frayed fabric of the criminal justice system, whose demonstrable inadequacies are so widespread that the details of Sir John’s report will probably be lost in the wash.

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