Armed guards in watchtowers may be inevitable, warns prisons' chief

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The Independent Online

Armed prison guards in watchtowers are inevitable if more dangerous inmates escape, the head of the Prison Service warned yesterday.

Armed prison guards in watchtowers are inevitable if more dangerous inmates escape, the head of the Prison Service warned yesterday.

"One day that will come," said director-general Martin Narey. "I hope it does not come for a very long time. I think it is an inevitability if we are unable to fulfil our primary task of protecting the public."

But, he said, armed guards "would be damaging" to the "great deal of humane work that goes on in the service".

Prison chiefs are becoming increasingly concerned at the arms, money and other resources available to help dangerous prisoners escape. Since August, staff have foiled breakouts by uncovering a bomb detonator and two replica firearms in high-security jails.

Authorities have unveiled a £13m electronic multi-camera super-surveillance system to monitor the 9,000 most dangerous prisoners in England and Wales. Mr Narey said the Concept 2000 system would help put off armed watchtowers.

"We have to have the very best technology if we are to thwart determined attempts to escape. We realise that attempts to escape can be supported by arms."

The system is called Panop- tes after a 100-eyed creature from Greek mythology who never slept. It requires 120 fewer operators than now watch banks of TV screens in jail control rooms.

Mr Narey said the detonator was concealed in a drain at a high-security prison "in a very sophisticated manner". Replica firearms were found at Long Lartin prison, near Worcester, and Wakefield prison, west Yorkshire.

Britain is the only country in Western Europe that does not have armed guards on the walls, he added. In 1953, officers overseeing work patrols from Dartmoor gave up their carbines and Webley revolvers, the last guards to carry arms.

Now officers have only a small baton, shields, helmets and protective clothing. Non-lethal weaponry, including CS Gas and pepper sprays, may also be considered.

In 1994, IRA terrorists used a smuggled firearm in an attempted breakout at Whitemoor prison, Cambridgeshire, in 1994. One officer was shot. Three years earlier, two IRA men shot their way out of Brixton prison, south London, and escaped to Ireland.

But since 1995, not a single high-security prisoner has escaped. Only five prisoners have escaped from jails since March, compared to 30 in the previous 12 months.

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