Skull Cracker outcry risks derailing effective open prison system

Absconding rates are down and day-releases have less than a 1 per cent ‘failure’ rate, figures show

First there was Skull Cracker. Then there was the Scarborough Slasher. On Monday police were seeking the latest felon with a violent past and a lurid identifier to abscond from an open prison – a man with a Dennis the Menace tattoo.

Lewis Powter, a 30-year-old who was sentenced seven years ago to an indeterminate prison term after he chased a man and split his elbow to the bone with a 3ft machete, became the tenth inmate to walk out of a Category D jail in the last fortnight when he failed to appear for roll-call on Sunday at HMP Hollesley Bay.

Powter was the second inmate to escape from the prison on the Suffolk coast in as many days after Paul Oddysses, a convicted armed-robber serving a life term, absconded on Saturday afternoon.

The escapes underline the growing impression that hardened criminals are managing to throw off the bonds of the penal system by absconding at will from “Cat Ds”, the relatively lightly supervised “open” prisons which form the stepping stone between incarceration and reintegration for prisoners coming to the end of their sentences.

Their disappearances followed hot on the heels of Michael Wheatley, aka Skull Cracker, who left HMP Standford Hill on the Isle of Sheppey while serving 13 life sentences for bank raids and was arrested on suspicion of carrying out a fresh robbery; and Damien Burns, who earned his “Scarborough Slasher” nickname with a knife attack on a teenager and last week walked out of HMP Hatfield in South Yorkshire.

The absconders, which include a man who is suspected of a knife attack on a woman in Poole last week, are embarrassing for a Government which has been unafraid to both trumpet falling crime figures and trim the budget for the justice system by some £2.2bn. Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan has said the situation regarding the recent escapes is now “beyond a joke”.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling last week attempted to seize back the initiative by tweaking the rules for the transfer of prisoners to Category D prisons, which house about 4,100 offenders – less than 5 per cent of the total jail population of 84,000.

Henceforth, prisoners who have previously absconded will no longer be transferred to open conditions and unrestricted “town leave” for inmates will end.

But although the escape of 10 prisoners in 14 days may sound alarmingly high, it is in fact about average – one inmate escapes roughly every 43 hours from prisons in England and Wales.

There are also far fewer escapees than there used to be – in 2002-03 some 1,301 inmates left custody unauthorised, either by walking out of an open prison or failing to return from a temporary licence. By last year the figure had fallen to 204.

Reformers are concerned that the outcry over the latest rash of absconders, many of them lifers convicted of heinous crimes, will result in a kneejerk tightening of a system which has been proven to reduce re-offending rates by slowly reintroducing to the mainstream prisoners who have been institutionalised.

Introduced in the 1930s, open prisons represent one of the major evolutions of penal theory away from the Victorian model of hard labour. Sir Alex Paterson, a prison reformer, summed up the thinking, saying: “You cannot train a man for freedom under conditions of captivity.”

As a result, Category D prisons generally deal with inmates convicted of serious offences with sentences of four years or more and recommended for transfer by parole boards. So-called Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) programmes allow inmates to work or study and return home for brief periods and some 500,000 day-release licences of this kind are issued each year, with a “failure” rate of less than 1 per cent.

However, professional bodies and campaigners are becoming increasingly concerned about the viability of the practice in a prison and probation service which has had its funding cut by some £880m since 2011. The Prison Officers’ Association has warned of a staffing crisis in jails which results in dangerous prisoners being transferred to the open system.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Open prisons help to keep us safer. But... you need very skilled staff and there are no longer enough of them across the system. As a result we are seeing prisoners who are unsuitable being put into open prisons.”

Last week, seven men were jailed for a total of 30 years after police broke up a £1m drugs ring being run from inside an open prison in Wales, while last year, HM Inspectorate of Prisons described the open wing at HMP Lindholme in South Yorkshire as “the worst establishment inspectors had seen in many years” with drugs and alcohol widely available.

In a statement, Mr Grayling said: “I am clear that open prisons and temporary licences remain an important tool in rehabilitating long term offenders but not at the expense of public safety.”

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz