Prison escape key is found near postbox

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Disaster turned to farce yesterday when the key used by three dangerous criminals to break out of Parkhurst was discovered next to a post box 50 yards from the top security jail amid revelations that the prison managers were given three different warnings about the escape.

More than 200 police officers continued searching the Isle of Wight for the two murderers and an arsonist who escaped on Tuesday night.

As investigators pieced together details of the latest blow to the prison system it emerged that managers at Parkhurst had been told by warders two days before the break-out that inmates could have a key and that parts of a prison officer's uniform were missing.

It was also revealed that they had reported that Matthew Williams, was acting suspiciously the day before he escaped. Prison officers say they sent a letter outlining their concerns to the governor's office.

It is understood that John Marriott, the governor, has emphatically denied that he was warned about the key.

Nevertheless an official from the Prison Officers' Association who was at Parkhurst shortly after the escape said managers were aware of the warning.

Terry McLaren, national executive member of the POA, said: "Four days before the escape our members reported that Williams was sizing up walls, watching the coming and going of officers and generally acting as if he was contemplating to escape. Two days

before managers were told that items of uniform were missing and a key had been compromised - an alert which meant a duplicate could be in prisoners' hands. I find it extraordinary that these three security matters were not acted on."

Police disclosed last night that the copied key was hand made. It was used by the three inmates - Williams, Keith Rose, and Andrew Rodger, - to unlock the door of a gymnasium and enter a workshop where they assembled a home-made ladder.

They then cut their way through the perimeter fence before scaling the 25ft outer wall.

Hampshire's Assistant Chief Constable, John Wright, said that inmates at Parkhurst must have helped with the escape and that he could not rule out the possibility of the men receiving assistance from prison staff.

He said: "It is very clear to us this escape was planned over days, even weeks."

He added that he presumed the escapees were still on the island.

The political pressure on Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and Derek Lewis, head of the prison service, grew yesterday with the announcement that they would face a public grilling by MPs later this month over the Parkhurst and Whitemoor jail escapes and the prison suicide of Frederick West.