Jails chief in war of words with staff

Lewis accuses union of instructing prison officers not to co-operate wi th inquiry as hunt for escapers continues to draw blank
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The embattled head of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis, last night launched an unexpected attack on staff at Parkhurst jail on the Isle of Wight.

Mr Lewis claimed members of the Prison Officers' Association had been instructed by the national executive not to co-operate with the inquiry into the escape of three prisoners who were last night spending their fourth night on the run. He said in a written statement that he was "shocked" to have learnt of the POA's non-co-operation from Richard Tilt, the Prison Service's director of security, who has been investigating the escape at the Isle of Wight jail since Wednesday.

The POA described Mr Lewis's accusation as a "total distortion of the truth". John Bartell, general secretary, said prison staff had been instructed to give "full and frank statements" on what they knew, and if necessary, to give additional clarificationin writing.

Mr Bartell, hinting at the possible area of conflict, said the inquiry team had wanted "cosy question-and-answer sessions" which he said would help explain the truth of what happened.

As police yesterday carried out their third full day of searching on the Isle of Wight - which included continuing to scour the island's more remote and uninhabited districts and stringent checks of all vessels leaving and arriving - Mr Lewis arrived at the three-prison complex near the main town of Newport. His visit had been pre-arranged, centring on an award ceremony at Camphill, a category C prison adjacent to Parkhurst.

Mr Lewis, a former television executive before joining the Prison Service two years ago, is widely credited as having good public relations skills and intuition. Such skill were not in evidence yesterday when his visit often descended into a PR farce.

Three cancelled photo opportunities and likely question-and-answer session were promised by Home office officials during the day. None materialised. Finally one photographer and one television camera were allowed to film Mr Lewis and Mr Tilt walking inside an enclosed courtyard at Parkhurst.

The Home Office official, clearly embarrassed at Mr Lewis's evasiveness, would offer no explanation. A written statement was finally handed out. in which Mr Lewis said he had had a "full briefing" with Mr Tilt.

He said that given the allegations of the POA (which claimed that prior to the escape, it had warned the governor about a missing key, missing prision uniforms, and one prisoner apparently checking staff movements) he "would have expected them to co-operate fully". He added:" I am determined that this action by the POA will not obstruct the inquiry and that the full facts will be established."

Mr Tilt's inquiry, said Mr Lewis in his statement, would also be followed by "an independent assessment of the events at Parkhurst" as part of an inquiry already being undertaken by Sir John Learmont.

Yesterday, police in Dorset disclosed that six sets of plans of Parkhurst prison had been discovered in a dustbin two months ago. A builder had been renovating private property when he discovered the plans. Special Branch were alerted and contacted Parkhurst's security personnel. Dorset police offered to investigate, but they received no reply. News of the find follows the discovery on Thursday of a set of plans of the jail at a railway station in Brockenhurst, Hampshire.

Police carrying out the searches said yesterday that the plans would not have assisted prisoners contemplating an escape.

6 The Prison Service last night denied that firebombs had been found inside a secure unit at Full Sutton prison in Humberside.

According to the Sun newspaper, aerosol cans had been packed inside ovens that would explode when a certain temperature was reached. But the Prison Service said: "The devices were two empty aerosol cans which had contained varnish and had been placed in an oven in an attempt to cause a fire.''