In the dark of a January evening, a dog handler at Parkhurst noticed a hole cut in the wire perimeter fence. It took 30 minutes for staff to discover who was missing, and by that time three prisoners had been on the run with money and weapons for two and a half hours.
The Learmont inquiry into the episode tells a story of disaster at every stage, "a chapter of errors at every level and a naivety which defies belief". The break-out was not based on any "new or ingenious" plan, but simply on the ability of the prisoners to follow a well-trodden path through loose and ineffective security.
The escape was the culmination of long and detailed preparations which rivalled those of the British prisoners of war in Colditz. The three men had made tools, a steel ladder and a gun, and had acquired blank ammunition. They had also made a key to open all the doors and gates, and they managed to accumulate more than pounds 200.
On the evening of the escape the three men had stayed on in the sports hall after exercise. No one noticed that the party of ten had shrunk to seven back on the wing. The men walked 200 yards without being noticed, using their key to open doors.
They then cut their way through a mesh fence before scaling the perimeter wall. The staff who were supposed to watch the television screens were untrained and distracted by other duties. Despite almost 20 years of correspondence and complaints, alarms had never been installed on the perimeter fence. Some areas were not covered by the closed circuit cameras. The report says this neglect of technology was "quite extraordinary".
The escaping men, in their own clothes, walked to Newport and took a taxi nine miles to Sandown. They then spent four days trying to steal an aircraft, and several boats. Finally, they were caught after being spotted by an off-duty prison officer.
The inquiry revealed that one of the escaped prisoners was a qualified sheet-metal-worker who had been left, unsupervised, to make the ladder out of some goalposts. Another made the key, probably copying from memory a prison officer's key. And they made a gun.
The cash and ammunition probably came in via visitors. There was no closed- circuit television in the visiting area, and the report says: "It was known by officers that, in the confusion and noise, illicit items were regularly passed to the inmates." Staff themselves may have brought illegal items in.
Some of the weaknesses are blamed on the continual building work at the Victorian jail, which began in 1988 and should have finished in 1993, but will now go on into the next century. Staff resisted temporary closure in order to protect their jobs.
"A phoney stability was achieved at Parkhurst ... by surrender to the prisoners of control over their daily existence," the report says. The prison was effectively run by the inmates; there was no real limit to private cash holdings, and bullying and intimidation were rife. When 20 high-risk prisoners were transferred from the prison after the escape, the total private cash balance held on behalf of inmates fell by almost pounds 15,000. Phonecards were used as currency for drugs and gambling. The governor spent only two or three hours a week talking to staff and inmates, and 50 on paperwork.
The report describes the hunt itself as "chaos". No one knew who should be called in to help, radios and torches had flat batteries, and maps were illegible photocopies. The report concludes: "The break-out could have been launched at any time with the same chances of success. There is little to commend in the way things were done."