Break-out jail cut searches after threats to staff

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The Independent Online
THREATS against staff at Whitemoor prison - the scene of Friday's IRA escape attempt - led to searches of visitors to high-risk prisoners being abandoned or at best 'cursory', according to prison sources.

At one stage, the Home Office instructed staff not to body-search visitors to the Cambridgeshire jail's Special Secure Unit, from which the six prisoners shot their way out.

Although that instruction was rescinded last year, searches are said to have amounted to no more than a 'pat down', which may have allowed weapons used in the escape attempt to be smuggled in.

The latest disclosures, appearing to contradict the assertion by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, that there was no appeasement of IRA prisoners, led to further calls for him to resign. According to Whitehall sources, the Home Office had been asked to balance the risk of death threats against easing regimes for high-security prisoners, and chose the latter. A Prison Service spokewomen said that from June 1993, the jail had carried out 'rub down' searches contained in the security manual for governors.

In a letter to the Independent today, Paddy Seligman, the founder chairman of the jail's board of visitors, lays the blame with the Home Office: 'The decision not to body- search visitors to IRA prisoners was made not locally . . . but at Home Office level. The implications resulting from this decision are now obvious. If the resignation of anyone is called for it should be that of the Home Secretary.'

Mrs Seligman claimed that a reduction of staff at Whitemoor at a time when prisoners were expecting a better regime had meant that routine duties such as cell searching did not come up to standard. Her letter yesterday gave support to John Bartell, chairman of the Prison Officers' Association, who said: 'We have complained about the lack of security in the prison service and about breaches of security but in particular we have complained about the way visits took place for IRA prisoners.'

Following the Whitemoor break- out, a search of London's Belmarsh prison unearthed a home-made map of the prison and two bars of soap bearing impressions of keys.

Letter, page 11