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.”

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