A violent bank robber known as the “Skull Cracker” remained on the run on Monday night after prison authorities faced questions over why an inmate with a history of running away was allowed out on short-term release.
Michael Wheatley, who failed to return to Standford Hill open prison on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent to continue serving 13 life sentences, is the latest in a string of high-profile absconders from a regime designed to rehabilitate inmates. The 55-year-old had twice gone on the run previously from a series of jail terms for violent robberies. Once he failed to return after he was released for a hospital visit in 1988; four years later he failed to come back from a visit to the optician.
The Prisons minister, Jeremy Wright, said there would be another review of the latest case. “We are not prepared to see public safety compromised. The system has been too lax up to now and we are changing that,” he said.
Wheatley – who earned his nickname for pistol-whipping victims during raids – failed to return on Sunday to the Kent prison to continue serving his life term imposed in 2002 for raids on banks and building societies while on parole. He has links across South-east England and police said that he should not be approached.
“It is ludicrous that a prisoner serving a life sentence is even in an open prison where they can simply walk out,” said the Tory MP Philip Davies. “As far as I am concerned whoever allowed him to be in an open prison should be sacked; it is a complete disgrace.”
The Ministry of Justice said that prisoners on day release will be given GPS tags from the autumn after a series of embarrassing incidents. It follows the case of Sean Bradish who was jailed for three life terms in February after robbing banks while on day release – then facing no action when he turned up hours later. In a parole board report, he was praised for taking the opportunity to “rebuild relations with close friends and family”. It stated there was no evidence of concerning behaviour or association with criminal associates.
The ministry had already promised a review into day release after a convicted killer stabbed a pensioner to death who intervened in the robbery of an elderly neighbour. Ian McLoughlin was jailed for life last year.