Jails chief to face blame over escapes

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

About 100 Prison Service staff, including Derek Lewis, the director general, have been formally warned that they may face criticism over January's Parkhurst Prison escape.

General Sir John Learmont, who is conducting a review of all prison security, has in a draft report identified weaknesses within the service which allowed three high-risk prisoners to go on the run.

His warning letters - about 40 to staff at Prison Service headquarters and 60 to governors and officers at the Isle of Wight jail - invite comment before his final conclusions are sent to Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, next month.

The number of warning letters - double those sent out following the inquiry into the Whitemoor escape only a few weeks earlier - indicate that far more people will be held responsible.

The former governor, John Marriott, and six other staff have already been removed from their duties by the Home Secretary following an initial inquiry by Richard Tilt, the director of security, pending the outcome of all inquiries. He identified the deployment of inexperienced staff and the failure to check prisoners as factors contributing to the escape.

But Sir John's criticisms of Parkhurst, contained in one chapter of his security report, go much further, focusing on confused management lines and the Prison Service's failure to respond to repeated calls for security alarms on the jail's perimeter. These are provided at all other top security jails and would, he concludes, have prevented the escape.

Sir John's inquiry, set up in the wake of the Whitemoor debacle and extended after Parkhurst, is damning. In his draft report, Sir John says that governors are sometimes prevented from performing their duties because they spend 50 hours a week dealing with a blizzard of paperwork from headquarters.

He concludes that the service should be streamlined and run on fully accountable command lines. Although he favours more devolved powers to governors, he is concerned that the country's 134 jails all operate differently.

For this reason and contrary to government policy, he comes down against jail privatisation - but believes all ancillary services could be put out to tender. He also favours in-cell prison service television.

Yesterday, Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said that while some of the report appeared constructive, he was concerned that a "military model" would not solve the problems of Britain's jails. "Prisoners are not volunteers or conscripts. It must not be forgotten most came from chaotic backgrounds before being sentenced."