Breakout jail feared 'loss of control'

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The Independent Online
ON FRIDAY John Major promised a 'major blitz on drugs in prisons'. 'We must choke off the supply of drugs to prisons,' he told the Social Market Foundation. Prison should reform people, not see them 'sucked into a sub-culture of drugs'.

As he was talking, five senior IRA terrorists in Whitemoor jail, Cambridgeshire, and an armed robber, were preparing to demonstrate that the Home Office had not only failed to stop drugs getting into prisons but could not even 'choke off' the supply of guns.

One guard was shot and injured and others ignored the shots that went by them as they fought to recapture the fugitives. It was only because of what Derek Lewis, Director General of the Prison Service, described as the unarmed officers' 'courage, commitment and professionalism' in tackling the fugitives that the Government was not faced with a prison breakout comparable to the flight of the Soviet spy George Blake in 1966 and the IRA suspects Nessan Quinlivan and Pearse McAuley in 1991.

But, after the initial relief at the six men's capture, hard questions remained. The Home Office inquiry will examine how at least two guns and what police described as 'a device' got inside the maximum-security prison and whether lax standards contributed to the escape of six men over the wall of a jail which has a short, and controversial, history.

Whitemoor, in the Cambridgeshire fens, near March, was meant to be a model prison when it was opened by Norma Major in September 1991. Half the accommodation was given over to sex criminals, such as the mass killer Dennis Nilsen, who needed to be segregated for their own protection. The other two wings were to hold IRA terrorists, armed robbers, drug dealers and other serious 'conventional' prisoners. It was to be a 'national resource' for officials dealing with prisoners sentenced to life.

But, from the start, Whitemoor was beset with difficulties. The jail cost pounds 52m to build - almost three times the original estimate of pounds 18.5m. Mrs Major was greeted with sit- down demonstrations against conditions in the jail by inmates when she arrived. Soon prisoners' worries about their food and work were replaced by growing fears among the staff that they could not manage the inmates.

Lynne Bowles, a senior manager in the jail, said in 1993 that criminals who were using violence and threats against the authorities to get their own way were still being 'pampered' with privileges. Among the perks was permission for prisoners to cook their own meals with food ordered from local supermarkets.

Then, in October last year, Leslie Bailey, a paedophile who had been part of a group that abused and killed three boys, was found strangled in his cell. At Christmas, prisoners drunk on illicit cell-brewed 'hooch' smashed windows and fittings, ripped doors off their hinges and started small fires in five hours of vandalism at the jail.

In its annual report, the prison's Board of Visitors warned that the jail authorities were in danger of losing control of the 500 inmates. To make things worse, Judge Stephen Tumim's Prison Inspectorate criticised low staffing levels and said the Home Office had allowed the jail to become a dumping ground for difficult inmates. There were too many disruptive prisoners 'determined to challenge the system' in one place, it said.

Above all, the jail lacked 'coherence'. Sex offenders could not mix with ''ordinary' prisoners because they would be beaten up. But the planners had designed a prison 'without apparent regard' for the physical difficulties of keeping the two groups apart.

It was in this confused prison, with the managers seemingly frightened of inmates, that the escape was planned.

The IRA men - who included Gilbert McNamee, who was linked to the 1982 Hyde Park explosion which killed four army bandsmen, and Peter Sherry, one of the Brighton bombers - were held in a segregated, secure unit. With them was Andrew Russell, an armed robber who, in 1987, hijacked a helicopter and picked up a murderer and gangland boss from the football pitch of Gartree Prison, Leicestershire.

All six were out of their cells on Friday evening enjoying what the Prison Service calls 'association' - or recreation; they could watch television or stroll around the corridors and talk to friends.

The men had received smuggled guns and seized their chance to break out of the building at 8.05pm. John Kettleborough, a prison officer, was shot and slightly wounded after he saw the hole they had cut through a chainlink fence surrounding their 'prison within a prison' and decided to follow them.

He found they had got through the sterile area outside the unit's fence and used makeshift ladders to climb the 35ft perimeter wall. One of the men on the run had raised his arm and fired at him when he shouted to them to come down.

Mark Maltby, a 31-year-old prison dog handler, heard the shots just after he started his Friday night shift and ran out along the outside of the wall with his Alsatian, Deano.

He saw two men on top of the wall. They were using 'the classic knotted bedsheets to shin down the outside,' he said yesterday. 'Someone on top of the wall pointed a gun and fired at me.'

He got out of the way. Another dog handler quickly caught Paul Patrick Magee, the last man over the wall, who was serving 30 years for the murder of a special constable. Mr Maltby chased the others and heard at least two shots fired at him.

Deano was shot at as he brought three of the escapers to a standstill, but was not injured. Police officers and other prison officers and their dogs rushed to the scene and surrounded the three men. Two others escaped, but police had sealed all the local roads.

Graham Moore, Deputy Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire, said an armed response unit was on duty when the breakout took place and a helicopter with searchlights was sent by Essex police. The helicopter spotted the remaining two escapers hiding in a ditch half a mile from the prison.

The ability of the IRA men to get hold of firearms could prove embarrassing to the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, and Mr Lewis. There was a public outcry after Quinlivan and McAuley used a gun smuggled into Brixton prison, south London, to escape in 1991. The prison governor took early retirement. But political anger focused on Kenneth Baker, the then Home Secretary, after it was revealed that confidential sections of Judge Tumim's report on the escape showed that a prison officer working for the Staffordshire Special Branch discussed possible escape routes through the prison chapel with the IRA men in an attempt to win their confidence and extract information from them.

He then panicked and warned the Home Office that the men were planning to break out with a gun. But the pair were not split up and five months later they escaped, as predicted, with a gun via the chapel.

Mr Baker did not accept Labour demands that he should resign, but was severely damaged by criticism from Conservative supporters in the Press. The affair had a further consequence. It allegedly helped MI5 in its bitter and successful fight to take over the lead role in the fight against terrorism from Special Branch.

Yesterday Brodie Clark, the Whitemoor prison governor, made it clear that he had no intention of resigning. He took up his new job three months ago and is widely respected in the Prison Service. His future could depend on the findings of the report. Derek Lewis, a former television executive brought into oversee prison privatisation, could also be under pressure.

Labour, meanwhile, is determined that Mr Howard should not escape blame. Joan Ruddock, the party's Home Affairs spokeswoman, said yesterday that with controversy about the movement of prisoners from mainland jails to Ireland already high on the agenda, she would have expected Mr Howard to have reviewed the security arrangements for IRA prisoners. The inquiry into the escape attempt must not just look at the 'technical responsibility of prison staff' but at the 'level of preparedness of the Home Secretary,' she said. 'It is with him that responsibility ultimately lies.'

But the most serious consequences could be in Northern Ireland. Some Unionists seized on the jail-break to discredit the 11-day-old ceasefire. Even those optimistic about the sincerity of the IRA and its ceasefire were confused by events.

Why did five prominent IRA members - two of whom had been granted permission to serve the rest of their prison sentences in Northern Ireland - attempt an armed breakout at such a delicate juncture? Could the men have acted on their own initiative without the permission of the IRA command? There was speculation in the province that they might even be part of a disaffected group within the Provisionals opposed to the ceasefire.

Sinn Fein sources claimed the jail-break had come as a surprise. The organisation's vice president Pat Doherty claimed that there had been no breach of the IRA ceasefire. Joe Hendron, SDLP MP, said he did not believe the ceasefire had been breached but admitted there were 'odd aspects' that he did not understand.

Mr Hendron said splintering within the IRA was possible but unlikely. He added that speculation that the five men had tried to escape to join up with disaffected members was unlikely and dangerous. 'It is most likely that these were men simply looking for freedom. One of the six wasn't even an IRA member. Perhaps they just spotted a weakness in security.'

Mr Hendron said he doubted that the IRA chain of command was as strong in English prisons as in Northern Ireland.

'This was probably planned before the ceasefire. I don't read too much into it. Some politicians will, of course, try to portray this as an event which makes a farce of the ceasefire, or as something which causes embarrassment to the IRA or the Government. It doesn't cause embarrassment for anyone except the Home Office and prison authorities.'

(Photograph omitted)