The discovery yesterday of the explosives during a police search led to renewed calls for the Home Secretary to be brought to account. Just over 1lb of explosives and three detonators were found in a storage container inside the perimeter wall of the Cambridgeshire jail, scene of an armed breakout by IRA prisoners two weeks ago.
Labour and prison pressure groups spoke of 'sheer amazement' at the apparent ease with which prisoners had managed to obtain weapons, and accused Michael Howard of 'losing control of the prisons'. John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, questioned the Home Secretary's competence. Stephen Shaw, of the Prison Reform Trust, said: 'This beggars belief. If a thriller writer had come up with a script which involves Semtex explosives and detonators being smuggled into a top-security prison, it would not be believed.'
The only previous time explosives have been found in a UK prison was in 1991 at Crumlin Road jail, in Belfast. Visitors to the prison had apparently brought in Semtex in the heels of their shoes.
Mr Howard yesterday described the find as 'a very grave matter' which would form part of Sir John Woodcock's inquiry into the escape from Whitemoor. The inquiry is already focusing on the failure to take effective action in the face of warnings a month before the breakout of security breaches at the jail.
Three cameras and pounds 500 had been smuggled into the special secure unit holding the high-risk prisoners, prompting a middle-ranking governor to express his concerns about safety and security. In a memo dated 9 August, he prophetically asks senior staff: 'What else - a gun next?' Four weeks earlier, Judge Stephen Tumim warned the Home Secretary that the unit was 'out of control', with its nine or ten high-risk prisoners enjoying too cosy a relationship with staff. But still there appear to have been no effective changes.
In the three years since the prison opened, inmates in the tiny unit have been granted special privileges to compensate for claustrophobic living conditions and interminable sentences. Staff shopped for takeaway meals and trainers for the men. The inmates cooked food for their visitors and had almost unlimited access to telephones. Yet threats and intimidation against staff meant visitor searches were at best cursory.
The unit had been closed so Cambridgeshire police could investigate the escape, and it was this that led to the discovery of the explosives.
Whitehall sources last night dismissed suggestions that either Mr Howard or Derek Lewis, the head of the Prison Service, would resign, and said the discovery would be treated as part of the escape from a jail 'that clearly had serious problems'.
The five IRA prisoners were recaptured son after their escape and have since been moved to another special secure unit at Full Sutton, York.Reuse content