Prison chiefs admit security fiasco

Howard urged to quit - Escapers used master key - Tumim warning 3 month s ago
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The Independent Online
Prison chiefs were warned three months ago about serious security lapses at Parkhurst jail - from which three dangerous criminals escaped - by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, who yesterday said that the penal system was in crisis.

As Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and Derek Lewis, director of the Prison Service, came under renewed pressure to resign, it emerged that the escapees from the top security prison on the Isle of Wight used a copy of a master key to break out. Warders claimed last night that the governor was told that prisoners had a key two days before their escape.

The Prison Service yesterday admitted the fiasco was due to "failure to follow basic security procedures". It was also revealed that the alarm was not raised for more than two hours after the escape on Tuesday by two murderers and an arsonist.

Judge Stephen Tumim, the Government's chief prison inspector, took the unprecedented step of writing to Mr Lewis in October to warn him of major security faults at Parkhurst. The letter, which was particularly critical of the staff's "inadequate searching" and inability to use electronic surveillance equipment properly was passed on to Mr Howard's office.

The security lapses were discovered during a routine inspection, but Judge Tumim considered them so serious he contacted the Prison Service before a final report was completed - something he has never deemed necessary before.

He said yesterday there were "serious defects of security across a broad front" at the jail and that there was "a lack of high morale" in the service".

"There is a depression in the Prison Service that results in considerable criticism of what they are doing and what they are trying to do. There is a feeling that more people are going to be sent in. There is a feeling - I am sure wrongly - that they arenot going to be able to cope, and there is a crisis of confidence."

The Prison Service felt it was getting "contradictory directions from above" when it needed effective leadership, he added.

More than 200 police officers yesterday continued their search for the escaped prisoners. Special officers, some armed patrolled the numerous ferry services leaving for the mainland. Their task, according to one officer, was difficult. He said: "The coa s t is 60 miles long. It's not that hard to lie and wait. We think, we hope that may be their plan."

The men got away at about 6pm on Tuesday after letting themselves out of a gymnasium where a fitness session was taking place. They unlocked a workshop and assembled a ladder to scale a 25ft-high wall. The alarm was not raised until 8.13pm. Neil Mason, Prison Officers Association spokesman at Parkhurst, said: "They managed to get hold of a copy of a key which opened several gates in the prison. This should never, ever happen and now we will have to change all the locks in the jail."

Terry McLaren, a member of the national executive committee of the POA, added: "The governor of Parkhurst was informed two days before the escape that there was a strong possibility there had been a compromise of the keys. We found it extraordinary that direct action was not taken."

The Prison Service said the new allegation about the copy of a key would be examined as part of the internal inquiry being conducted by its new director of security, Richard Tilt, who went to the jail yesterday. The service confirmed that locks were being changed at the prison.

Yesterday's developments only increased the pressure on the Home Secretary, who faced renewed calls for his resignation from Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman, and from John Bartell, the chairman of the POA.

Mr Bartell said that Mr Howard had either to accept that Mr Lewis had failed "or he has to carry the can himself".

Jack Straw, Labour's shadow Home Secretary, said that Mr Howard's job "is now on the line" and that he had "to get a grip on his responsibilities".

Claiming it was "absurd" for the Home Secretary to maintain there was a clear distinction between operational and policy matters, he said that Mr Howard "must acknowledge that he is the man responsible for the prison service, and answerable for it.

"He must stop passing the buck."

The beleaguered Home Secretary, who acknowledged that the Prison Service was his "ultimate responsibility", insisted he would resign if his policies were found to be at fault, but said that with the prison service admitting that failures at the prison were the likely cause of the escape "action must be taken to determine precisely who was responsible for what."

It was, he said on ITN, "a dreadful, dreadful escape" but he said he retained confidence in Mr Lewis. The recommendations that had been made by Judge Tumim had been carried out, he said.

Meanwhile Michael Forsyth, the prisons minister, blamed a clampdown on drugs and security procedures for sparking off the past two nights of rioting at Everthorpe jail in Humberside.