If you’re ever sentenced to life, and you’re planning to escape from prison, you better hope you don’t end up here in HMP Whitemoor, Britain’s Alcatraz, built to be an escape-proof fortress.
Here you’ll be locked up with the some of the most fearsome criminals in the prison system today. You’ll be rubbing shoulders with gangland bosses and armed robbers and coming face to face with murderous extremists. You may even end up in the prison’s supposedly impenetrable Special Security Unit (the “SSU”).
Built in 1991 on the 94-acre site of an old railway yard in the middle of the remote Fens in Cambridgeshire, HMP Whitemoor was at that time one of Britain’s newest high security Category A prisons, designed to contain a new breed of prisoner.
It was seen as the long-awaited solution to modernising a prison system struggling with a surge in prisoner escapes. For some prisoners, escaping was a very real possibility, and the prison service came up with a plan to try to foil potential attempts – the E-List. “E-men” were under closer scrutiny, wore green and yellow prison clothes, and were under a stricter regime than other Category A prisoners.
Yet in 1996, six men managed to escape for a few hours from HMP Whitemoor’s SSU and its reputation as the “escape-proof prison” was completely shattered. The escape attempt was humiliating for the prison and the entire criminal justice system.
Locked up in the wings of Whitemoor are some of the country’s most violent men, inside for running organised crime networks in Britain and around the world. Including, at one time, one of the UK’s most notorious gangsters, Manchester’s “Mr Big”, Paul Massey. They’re joined by another group of British criminals who are usually banged up for life – armed robbers.
As Britain moved into the 21st Century, its prison population would radically change once more, and nowhere more so than at HMP Whitemoor. The prison incarcerated more Islamic terrorists from the early 2000s – a global sign of the times – and a new approach was needed to combat this type of extremism. De-radicalisation programmes were introduced at Whitemoor for those convicted of extremism offences.
Convicted Islamic terrorist Usman Khan completed a course at Whitemoor and was released in December 2018 after serving eight years of his sentence. However, a year after his release, Khan would go on to cause carnage on the streets of London, murdering two young graduates before being killed by armed police on London Bridge.
Airs Wednesday 5th April on Channel 5.