Litany of blunders led to jail escape

Knockbacks for Government on prisons, transport, and employment

Heather Mills AND Patricia Wynn Davies

An inquiry has been ordered into security throughout the prison network, after a damning report catalogued a litany of blunders which allowed five armed IRA men and a robber to break out of the supposedly impregnable Whitemoor jail.

But while Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and Derek Lewis, the Director-General of the Prison Service , had to admit "a massive security failure" at the Cambridgeshire prison both ruled out resigning.

Yesterday, no one was accepting responsibility for one of the worst security lapses in prison history - even though Sir John Woodcock, the former Chief Inspector of Constabulary, roundly condemned every level of the prison service from the officers, through to senior management and Home Office ministers.

The escape by some of the country's most dangerous prisoners from the jail's special secure unit - a jail within a jail - and the subsequent discovery of Semtex explosive, was a "disaster waiting to happen", concluded Sir John.

His report described "pampered" inmates running a jail, dictating the terms of their confinement to the extent that they were able to smuggle in arms, fashion elaborate tools for their escape and to slip out under the noses of their "conditioned" minders. Most of the officers in the unit were playing Scrabble at the time of the escape. "So many things were wrong, so many procedures and policies ignored and with such regularity that the escape could have taken place on any day of any week," said Sir John .

The report marks a new low in Mr Howard's chequered career as Home Secretary as he admitted a `dreadful state of affairs'' had led to the September breakout - most recently no less than four court judgements have found him acting improperly.

Mr Howard not only promised to implement all 64 recommendations in theWoodcock report, but launched a service-wide security review, a disciplinary inquiry, a ministerial unit to supervise Prison Service performance and i additional security measures.

Tory backbenchers listened in discomforted silence and Labour MPs with barely concealed derision as Mr Howard pledged action but rejected demands for his resignation.

Jack Straw, his Labour opposite number, said the series of failures "simply beggar belief'' .The creation of a new unit outside the Prison Service to strengthen supervision "amounts to an extraordinary admission that existing arrangements for holding thePrison Service, the director of the Prison Service and yourself to account, have all but broken down," Mr Straw said.

The report found that staff in the unit had become intimidated and conditioned to the extent that they no longer believed security important.

They went on "demeaning" shopping sprees for the men and suffered abuse when they bought the wrong things, they allowed them unsupervised and unmonitored visits.

Last night, Mr Lewis learned that he will not get a bonus payment that he had been expecting this year.

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