It should be impossible to escape from a high-security prison, doubly so for prisoners held on the segregation unit, who are allowed only to exercise in a caged yard.
But on 21 June, the summer solstice and the hottest day of the year at that point, Joe Outlaw managed to break through the cage and get on to the roof of HMP Frankland, a Durham prison dubbed “Monster mansion” due to many of its inmates being convicted murderers, terrorists and sex offenders.
A local photographer captured Outlaw sunbathing in his underpants as he negotiated with riot police from the National Tactical Response Group. Some social media users may have recognised Outlaw from TikTok and YouTube, where he used to post protest raps and songs from his cell.
It was a huge embarrassment for the prison service, particularly as Outlaw was on the e-list (escape list) at the time. He shed the yellow and blue jumpsuit that indicates a flight risk only when he breached the cage, prompting huge cheers from the prisoners below.
It was not Outlaw’s first rooftop rodeo. An expert climber since his youth, when he escaped from numerous care homes, in April this year he managed to get on to the roof at HMP Manchester, better known as Strangeways, by sneaking off from the healthcare unit and crawling through reels of barbed wire.
For 12 soggy hours he sat up there in the driving rain to highlight the plight of prisoners in Wales and England, like himself, who are stuck in jail after being given imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentences with no automatic date for release.
Designed to protect the public from serious offenders whose crimes did not merit a life sentence, these indeterminate sentences were abolished in 2012 after it became apparent that they were “unclear and inconsistent” and resulted in people languishing in jail for many years, often for quite minor crimes, and with no clear path for release. “FREE IPPZ”, Outlaw wrote on Strangeways’ roof in gloss paint that kept running in the rain.
Outlaw, now 37, was given an IPP in 2011 after robbing his local takeaway with an imitation firearm while high on drugs. The IPP was imposed, he says, because he already had two firearms offences on his record – including one committed while a juvenile, when he fired a pellet gun in a public park.
He knows his crime was serious. “I didn’t hurt him physically, but anyone pointing a gun at anyone is traumatising, and I don’t know what it’s done to [the takeaway worker’s] life. I’ve got to take responsibility for that, and I am sorry for that,” he told the Guardian in one of a series of letters.
Outlaw – then going by the name Chris Hordosi, which he changed to Outlaw, his mother’s maiden name, while in prison – was given an IPP with an 18-year tariff, reduced to nine on appeal. Without the IPP element, he would have been eligible for automatic release after four and a half years.
Yet 12 years later, he is still in prison, fighting against a system he thinks is rigged to make release all but impossible. He believes the lack of hope has killed other IPPs – 270 so far have died in prison, with 81 taking their own lives.
Outlaw says he has tried to kill himself at least once, by setting fire to his cell – which ultimately resulted in an extra conviction for arson. He claims other IPPs have ended up committing murder in prison, figuring out they are basically in for life anyway.
After his rooftop protest at Frankland, Outlaw was transferred to HMP Belmarsh, a Category A jail in London that holds some of the most dangerous prisoners in England and Wales.
He claims that since 23 June he has been forced to live in “total isolation” on a special unit opened just for him.
“I haven’t heard or seen another inmate in almost six months so far. This is not because I’m violent or a danger to anyone. In 13 years I’ve never assaulted a member of staff and I have only had one fight with an inmate [a paedophile in HMP Wakefield]. I have been totally isolated simply because I spoke out in protest against the ongoing illegal imprisonment of IPPs … and to silence my voice and activism,” he said.
There is now near-unanimous agreement that IPPs are unfair, with the current justice secretary, Alex Chalk, calling them “a stain” on the justice system.
As of 30 September, there were 2,921 IPP prisoners, 1,269 of whom have never been released, with the remaining 1,652 having been recalled to custody.
A recent Independent Monitoring Board report on Belmarsh found it was holding four IPP prisoners, including Outlaw, telling ministers: “The Board considers it is inhumane to keep these men in prison for such lengthy periods.”
Last month, Chalk announced reforms that would cut the time that released IPP prisoners serve on licence from 10 to three years. But it remains unclear whether the reforms will benefit Outlaw, who claims he has not been given any information about whether it will give him a pathway for release.
He says he carried out his second rooftop protest at Frankland after suffering “horrid levels of abuse and neglect” there. The alternative was suicide, he said: “If I would have not taken that chance to do what I did there I would have ended up hanging myself, I swear to god.”
He claims he hid strips of ripped-up bed sheets in his trainers, which he then used to tie himself to the exercise yard cage, while hanging upside down. He then managed to break the cage before he crawled through and on to the roof.
“The most shocking thing was that I was in an e-list blue and yellow escape suit at the time, and just six weeks before, I had been on Manchester’s roof,” he said, describing it as “a new level of embarrassment for the Prison Service”, which “begs the question: what if this was a mass murderer or a millionaire drug dealer with a chopper?”
Outlaw knows many people may read of his escapades and think: “Joey, no wonder you are not getting out.” But he insists that many far better behaved IPP prisoners are stuck. “Lads have been sweet as a nut, managed to dodge all the war zones, do all the bullshit courses and they still come up with some reason to keep them in,” he wrote.
He claims he was originally told “all I had to do was keep my head down, behave and do my [rehabilitation] courses and I’d be back out in no time”. But in reality, he says, “every time lads would complete a course, a new one would be created and the goalposts moved again.” The Parole Board is inherently risk-averse when it comes to IPPs, he says. “They treat people that are in for fights or robbery like they are murderers.”
Prisons are corrupt, insists Outlaw. He claims to have watched drones deliver drugs to HMP Manchester every night, and “found myself just smoking weed, sniffing coke, taking Xanax – it was mental, everybody was just on a party mode constantly”.
Officers turned a blind eye to rampant smartphone use, he claims, to the point that he started TikTok and YouTube channels to showcase his jailhouse songs, one of which, he claims, gathered more than 150,000 views in three days.
He wants readers to put themselves in his shoes when viewing his protests. “What would you do when the people who are meant to be helping you are the ones who are abusing you, when no one around you cares or treats you with respect? There’s people who become your captors who are torturing you on a daily basis … How can you expect a person to change his ways for the better when treated with such disregard?”
A Prison Service spokesperson said: “We abolished IPP sentences in 2012 and have already reduced the number of offenders serving them in prison by three-quarters. We have also taken decisive action to curtail IPP licence periods to give rehabilitated people the opportunity to move on with their lives.
“Those still in custody are being helped to progress towards release through improved access to rehabilitation programmes and mental health support – but as a judge deemed them to be a high risk to the public the independent Parole Board must decide if they are safe to leave prison.”