Should penal system show some compassion for people such as lifer John Massey who breached his parole to care for dying relatives?
Imagine yourself in this scenario: you have been released on parole after serving 31 years for murder. You are sent to live in a bail hostel and ordered to comply with a strict 11pm curfew. Though technically free, you are aware that you could be recalled to prison at any moment, for a single minor breach of the terms of your licence.
Each day you travel to a hospital to visit your terminally ill father. One day, a doctor tells you your dad has only a short time to live. You want to remain by his side but your curfew is fast approaching. You call the hostel to plead for an extension but are told categorically this is out of the question.
What would your next move be? For one man this awful dilemma became a reality on 7 November 2007.
In 1976, John Massey, now 63, was sentenced to life for murdering a club bouncer after a drunken row. He was released in June 2007.
Before he was freed, Massey had been preparing for release for 18 months in an open prison in Derbyshire. Granted home leave, he was let out for five days every month to be at home with his family in London and visit his father in hospital. "I got myself a terrific job ? shop fitting," he recalls. "For the first time in my life I was fully legal and it felt wonderful. All that changed when I got parole."
His sister had offered a home with her in north London, but the probation service insisted he live in a bail hostel in Streatham, south London, some distance from his family in Camden. He describes the hostel as dirty and with more rules than the open prison he had just left.
Massey complied with all the rules for several months until his father's imminent death forced him to choose between his family and his liberty. Although two doctors were prepared to verify that his father's death was near, his pleas for an extension of his curfew were rejected. He stayed with his dad, Jack, who died four days later. Without waiting for the funeral, Massey turned himself in to the police and was immediately recalled to prison.
Two and a half years after that breach, Massey thought he was on the verge of freedom again. He had been decategorised and sent to another open jail, Ford, in West Sussex, seen as a stepping stone back to society. Then in May 2010, his awful history almost repeated itself. He received news that his sister, Carol, was gravely ill. Massey asked if he could be granted release on temporary licence but was told he could not be trusted. He then pleaded for an escorted visit to the hospital but was again rebuffed.
"We haven't got the staff," he recalls being told. "In desperation, I walked out and went straight to the hospital ? ironically, the same one where my dad had died." Massey did not leave Carol's bedside until she died two weeks later.
This time he didn't return to jail. He went to live with his 85-year-old mother in Camden and waited for the inevitable. Ten months later, it came: "I just waited for the knock on the door. When it came I was out back building a summer house extension. I wanted to do as much as possible for my mother before the police came."
From Pentonville prison, north London, Massey speaks candidly about the impact of his father's and sister's deaths, and his anger at an unfeeling system that has kept him locked up for fulfilling what he sees as his familial duties. He struggles to comprehend why he should remain behind bars for the crime of being a loving son and brother. "How are the public in danger of me?" he asks. "I did not commit any crime in the time I was free and my mother's neighbours know and respect me and say I was an asset to the community."
Massey admits that, since Carol's death, life in prison has been hard, yet he shudders at the thought of being absent at her deathbed: "The pain [of being inside] is excruciating at times but it is nothing compared to the agony I'd be feeling if I hadn't answered her call. I know I have done right, it feels right."
He concedes that this sort of honesty will do little to sell him as trustworthy to the parole board, within whose hands his future lies. He has had a meeting with his local board, but is not optimistic. "They wanted me to say sorry and promise not to breach my licence again. But how can I apologise for doing what seemed to be right?" He has yet to be told the date of the parole hearing that will decide his future.
The former chief inspector of prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, describes this as a very sad story, where common sense should have prevailed. "Of course, technically, Massey is in the wrong. But that's no excuse for clogging up an expensive system with people from whom the public do not seem to need to be protected," he says.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice says it cannot comment on individual prisoners. In March, there were 5,625 prisoners who had been recalled to jail for breaching the terms of their parole licence.
At 35 years and counting, Massey is one of Britain's longest-serving prisoners. Still a category B inmate, he nurtures hopes of freedom and using his joinery skills, but feels the system has forgotten him. "I was 26 when I first came to prison," he says, "I'm now 63 and fast running out of time to be any use to anyone."
? Additional research by Mischa Wilmers.