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John Massey: Britain’s longest-serving prisoner released after 43 years

Exclusive: Man who climbed out of Pentonville is freed to return home to Kentish Town

03 May, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

John Massey meets his sister Jane and niece Michelle at the prison gates


BRITAIN’S longest-serving prisoner was released yesterday (Wednesday) after spending nearly 43 years behind bars. John Massey, 69, was convicted of the 1975 murder of pub doorman Charlie Higgins.

He was handed a mandatory 20-year life sentence but spent more than twice as long in jail after escaping twice to say goodbye to dying members of his close-knit family in Kentish Town.

His extraordinary story included a daring prison break from Pentonville in 2012, a bid to see his mother on her deathbed. He had been denied compassionate leave.

While some may not forgive him, despite his messages of remorse, when he walked out of HMP Warren Hill in Suffolk yesterday morning Mr Massey had served a sentence almost two decades longer than other prisoners in the UK convicted of the same crime.

He collapsed into the arms of relatives and said: “It was a moment of madness. I’ve served my time now.”

The man who escaped Pentonville Prison leaves jail by the front door

JOHN Massey’s record four-decade stretch behind bars finally came to an end yesterday (Wednesday) when the doors of HMP Warren Hill swung open.

To many justice campaigners the 69-year-old has become a living case study of a prison system which cares more about punishment than rehabilitation. Since embarrassing the authorities in 2012 by climbing out of Pentonville Prison in a bid to see his mother on her deathbed, he has had three pleas for freedom knocked backed by the Parole Board.

So it came as a surprise to Mr Massey that a panel last week decided that this veteran of the British justice system, who has seen the inside of nearly every prison in the country, including Belmarsh and Parkhurst, has been given his freedom after nearly 43 years behind bars.

He was locked up after pleading guilty to killing doorman Charlie Higgins outside a bar in Hackney in 1975 and handed a life sentence with a 20-year tariff.

He has served more than twice as long after becoming notorious for his escapes. Mr Massey first fled in 1994 by climbing out of a pub window while on an escorted home visit. He made his way to Spain, where he stayed for three years before being extradited and sent back to prison.

Later, he broke parole conditions to sit by his father’s deathbed in 2007. On that occasion, he waited at the Grafton Arms, having a pint and knowing he would be arrested. On another occasion, he walked out of an open prison to see sister Carol, who had a terminal illness.

The most headline-grabbing escape was from Pentonville six years ago, with authorities believing he somehow managed to scale the wall.

He fled to say a last goodbye to his mother May – he had been denied compassionate leave – and was then arrested again.

John with his sister Jane and niece Michelle. Above, with his dad Jack and mum May in 2005

He later sent a message via the New Journal to Charlton Higgins, son of the man whom Mr Massey killed, apologising and showing deep remorse. Mr Higgins, who runs a pub in Braintree, described it as a “very late act”.

Mr Massey said on his release: “I have always deeply regretted the crime I committed and am aware of the consequences and the suffering it caused. It happened in a moment of madness. I have served my sentence with remorse and am thankful the Parole Board have come to the decision that I should now be released.”

His solicitor, John Turner, who has fought to secure Mr Massey’s freedom for a decade, told the New Journal he believed the right decision had been made.

“John’s release is long overdue and I am absolutely thrilled for John and his relatives, whom I have worked closely with for a number of years,” he said. “John comes from an extremely tight-knit family, who have supported him throughout his many years in prison.”

Mr Turner added that Mr Massey’s escape attempts had been tied up with a sense of loyalty towards a family who had stood by him.

“In latter years his release from prison has been delayed because of decisions that any loving son or brother would have made,” he added.

“John is a proud man – some may even say stubborn – and having acted for him for many years, he has been candid in explaining that he would have acted in the same way again if he was ever put in a similar position.”

The lawyer said that, despite breaking rules, his client could not be seen as a danger to the public.

He added: “The test for release focuses, in traditional terms, on the risk to life and limb. I have always argued that John does not pose such a risk. I hope that lessons have been learnt from what is indisputably a very sad case.

John Massey before he was sent to prison

The lawyer said: “Had the system shown some more compassion towards a loving son and brother then I am quite sure he could have been safely released years ago. However, today should be a day to focus on the positives and I am thrilled that he has been allowed to return home to spend time with those who mean the most to him.”

Wardens were told late on Friday that Mr Massey had been cleared for parole, although those at the prison with the authority to inform him had gone home for the weekend.

It meant Mr Massey’s relatives knew he was coming home – and waited anxiously for him to ring so they could share the news – but the prisoner himself did not discover the news until earlier this week.

“They called him into the governor’s office to give him the paperwork on Monday, but he couldn’t read it as he had left his glasses in his cell,” said his sister Jane. “They said: ‘Do you want us to read it for you – or do you want to take it away?’ He said: ‘You read it.’ He was in shock, but obviously very happy.”

Mr Massey told the New Journal the Parole Board hearing a fortnight ago, where his case was supported by a key worker and his probation officer, had gone as well as could be expected. But he added: “I really wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t want to feel hope. I know the system and I did not want to think about going through the parole process yet again, and having to wait another year.”

He was later told that a bed at a halfway house in London would need to be found before he could leave his cell. Some prisoners, he said, had waited for months for a space. ­“I’d be happy to get a sleeping bag and kip under the railway arches if it meant I could leave this place,” he said.

Late on Tuesday a place was found and he was out in less than 24 hours. “I was working out in the gym and three governors came in to find me,” said John. “One asked me what I was doing tomorrow, which I thought was a bit of an odd question, and then said: ‘You’d better pack your things, because you are going home’.”

It led to a sleepless night as he tried to prepare himself – and scores of messages from well-wishers and good­byes from prisoners and staff who have got to know the quietly-spoken inmate.

Inmates clapped him out, as relatives waited nervously outside

HMP Warren Hill, the category C prison which John Massey left yesterday 

AT precisely 8.45am yesterday (Wednesday), a 30ft-high wooden gate, set into a monolithic brick prison block, slipped slowly back on its rollers.

Behind it stands an inner chamber with a guardhouse and a quarantine section. Beyond the small, covered courtyard is another gate leading to the inner sanctums of HMP Warren Hill, a category C prison in the remoter parts of the Suffolk countryside.

John Massey’s sister Jane and his niece Michelle had been waiting patiently outside the gates for an hour. They had left London before dawn, feeling increasingly nervous, excited and a little bewildered at the shock news that today was the day they could come to see John – but this time, bring him home.

As the gates opened for Mr Massey for the last time, a warden accompanied him, pushing a trolley with a small bag and a couple of guitars – his meagre personal possessions.

Shell-shocked and tired – he had hardly slept the night before – he revealed other prisoners had given him a warm send-off as he walked towards the gates, clapping his every step towards freedom – and asking him to leave a few items behind from his small cell for them to share, such as a can of tuna and some toilet roll.

Little needed to be said between Mr Massey, Jane and Michelle – they fell into each other’s arms, hugs and kisses that spoke more than any words possibly could. The warden stood a respectful distance away, then helped load Mr Massey’s few belongings into the back of a car.

Without saying goodbye, Mr Massey turned his back on Warren Hill. The gate slowly closed, leaving him standing there to breathe in deep gulps of the fresh Suffolk wind, a free man who has served his time.


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