Hundreds escaping open jails

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The Independent Online

The numbers of inmates absconding from open jails has soared by 57 per cent this year, with more than three prisoners disappearing every day.

Home Office figures published yesterday revealed that 1,173 inmates walked out of the 15 open prisons in England and Wales in the 12 months to the end of October. This compares with 749 escapes from open prisons in 2001-2.

The biggest problem has been at Kirkham prison, near Preston, Lancashire, where more than 900 prisoners have walked out in the past five years. Over the same period, more than 400 absconded from Wealstun prison, Wetherby, West Yorkshire, and nearly 350 from Sudbury prison, near Ashbourne, Derbyshire. At the latest count, more than 400 of the escaped prisoners had not been recaptured.

The increasing number of escapes is blamed on the pressure on space caused by the rising prison population. With a record 74,200 prisoners, prison service chiefs have been forced to house hundreds more in open jails. Charles Bushell, general secretary of the Prison Governors Association, said: "We are chock-a-block. This means the only way of keeping everybody in jail ... is to use every available space."

He said inmates were being increasingly sent to distant open prisons, inaccessible to their friends and relatives. As a result they became depressed and homesick and were more likely to abscond.

Phil Wheatley, the director general of the Prison Service, said last week: "We are in the run-up to near-full capacity. We are using [open prisons] for people who 10 years ago we would not have used them for."

Enver Solomon, policy officer for the Prison Reform Trust, said: "The overcrowding crisis could be eased tomorrow if the more than 40,000 people who each year are imprisoned for less than six months were placed on robust, effective community programmes that are a more appropriate punishment for low-risk offenders.

The Prison Service said those who abscondedwere usually returned to secure jails, where they lost privileges and were extremely unlikely to be considered for early release.