Whitemoor escape trial stopped

'In one form or another all long-term and high-security prisoners in both Whitemoor and other gaols will be made to suffer in revenge for the escape and it will be exploited by Michael Howard and friends to win sympathy for repressive policies already in the pipeline.' FRFI 121 October/November 1994.

'Although such publicity was embarrassing for the government and Prison Service, it was also of use to them as they sought to further crack down on prisoners' rights and entitlements. Indeed, for varying reasons, a high-profile but profoundly dishonest examination of the apparent failings of the prison system suited the Prison Service, the Prison Officers' Association (POA), the government and the opposition parties.' FRFI 123 Feb/ March 1995.

Nicki Jameson follows the story of the Whitemoor escape.

The second trial of the six would-be escapers from Whitemoor prison came to an abrupt end on 23 January 1997 when Judge Maurice Kay ruled that adverse publicity meant the men could not receive a fair trial. The publicity in question was an article in the previous night's Evening Standard and editor Max Hastings was summoned to court to apologise. The first trial, in October 1996, had closed just two days after it opened, for exactly the same reason, and Hastings and the journalist who wrote the offending article appear to be the only media employees in London who were unaware of this situation. Unless, that is, the truth is more sinister and the one-time Falklands war correspondent turned right-wing editor, rather than making an unfortunate mistake, was doing his patriotic duty and ensuring the state's secrets remained secret. A case of investigative journalism in reverse.

By the time the trial was halted, it had become evident that the prison officers and governors giving evidence were not only contradicting one another, but were telling a substantially different story to the one they told to the government's Woodcock Enquiry conducted directly after the escape. It had also become clear that crucial pieces of evidence, mainly in the form of video film, were mysteriously 'missing'. Leaping ten steps ahead of general suspicion that 'bent screws' had assisted the prisoners in their bid for freedom, Michael Mansfield QC posed the blunt question to the media assembled outside Belmarsh Crown Court, ‘Was this something where the security services set up the escape?'

If such a scenario is indeed the case, and many sources confirm entrapment as highly likely, it begs the further question as to what the purpose of such an exercise would be, particularly as the escape brought such opprobrium down on the Prison Service. There are two main reasons why such a high-profile 'disaster' would ultimately be in the state's interest: firstly, it might have been considered a way to disrupt the 'peace process' in Ireland and dismiss any demands being put forward for an amnesty for political prisoners; secondly, it might have been seen as a useful tool in the drive towards increased repression in British prisons. The counter-argument to the second suggestion is that the government doesn't need to manufacture excuses to attack prisoners' rights; it does so anyway, seizing on occurrences such as riots, escapes or crimes committed by prisoners on home leave, whenever it needs to. There is no doubt, however, that, whoever initiated the Whitemoor escape, it was then exploited for such a purpose.

The Woodcock Enquiry recommended a whole series of repressive measures which are now in operation, not just in high-security gaols or Special Security Units (SSUs), such as the one the men escaped from at Whitemoor, but in every prison in Britain. The Woodcock report tells of an honest but demoralised prison staff running a high-security prison where tough prisoners rule the roost, security measures are lax and prisoners have unlimited personal possessions, private cash and access to telephones. In this context the escape is described as 'a disaster waiting to happen' and has been used to justify the introduction of. among other measures: volumetric control (limitation on personal possessions to what can be fitted in two small boxes), random cell-searches at which the prisoner is not permitted to be present, Dedicated Search Teams trained to do nothing but conduct searches, restrictions on private cash and CCTV in visiting rooms. Woodcock suggests that closed visits are the only 'completely secure' option for exceptional high-risk prisoners (ie those kept in SSUs — the Whitemoor escapees have been on permanent closed visits, both domestic and legal, for over two years and all judicial challenges to this have so far been rejected).

The prisoners involved in the escape refused, not surprisingly, to speak to the Enquiry team at all. Woodcock also met resistance from prison staff, as did Cambridgeshire police who were conducting their own investigation. A prisoner at Whitemoor told FRFI in November 1994 that the main preoccupation of staff who spoke to Woodcock seemed to be 'diverting the attention onto the visitors when they know they should be looking closer to home'. In January 1995 the Director of Public Prosecutions sent detectives back to re-question some officers whose statements were unclear, prior to deciding whether to prosecute the six or not; the officers refused to answer any questions.

The 'missing' video evidence concerns the first four minutes of the escape and some seconds worth of the part where the three prisoners who got over the wall, but got no further, were recaptured. This latter part allegedly shows Danny McNamee being beaten by prison officers and it is obvious why the prison authorities should want it to be lost. However, despite the standard POA denials, the beating is a matter of record. Andy Russell wrote to FRFI after his recapture: 'Outside the gaol I had them sitting on me under the same conditions (cuffed and face down) while one pulled my head back for another to kick. It was the same for Danny McNamee ... ' More mystery surrounds the earlier film which, if the prosecution case were true, would show the prisoners cutting a hole in the fence with bolt-cutters; if the case the defence hoped to run is true, the film would show the prisoners going through a hole which had already been cut.

The question of 'who cut the fence?' is crucial to the debate as to whether the prisoners acted alone, were assisted, or were entrapped. Furthermore, given that the men were charged not with escape (maximum sentence 10 years), but with ‘breaking prison' (maximum sentence life imprisonment), it was important while the trial continued that they prove that it was not they who actually substantially damaged the fabric of the prison and did the physical ‘breaking'. Aware of the difficulties it was running into in this respect, the prosecution had told the judge that they would be applying to have the charge on the indictment changed to escape. But before they could actually put in their application, the trial was stopped.

There seems little doubt that this trial was halted deliberately before it got too close to the truth. Whether it would have got all the way there is impossible to guess at. Likewise, in the unlikely event that Mike Mansfield's demand for a second public enquiry is granted, it may very well be just another, better cover-up. But the ‘Whitemoor story' is not going to lie down and die. Among others, the wife of prison officer Brian Curran, ‘missing', like the video evidence, since March 1995 when he was suspended from his job at Whitemoor, will see to that, as will her MP, a former aide to Prisons' Minister Anne Widdecombe. There may, of course, be no link between the escape, Curran's disappearance and the death of prison officer Marcia Whitehurst, who was on her way to court to give her second day's evidence to the escape trial when her car plunged into a river. And the Pope may not be a Catholic.

For the six prisoners concerned, the collapse of the trial is a victory and they are overjoyed. They have succeeded in sowing massive public doubt about the integrity of prison staff and have not been convicted of anything as a result of the escape. The next stage for them now will be to continue their struggle against closed visits, a 'security' restriction imposed to punish visitors as well as prisoners, and completely redundant if you accept that the Whitemoor escapees were 'assisted' by prison officers, not visitors. And there will be a further court hearing: civil action is being instigated over the beatings the men sustained on their recapture. Stand by for more revelations — this is Britain in the 1990s and beneath the facade of democracy and judicial accountability, the state is ruthless.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 135 February/March 1997


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