Officers played Scrabble as prisoners fled

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The Independent Online
BY HEATHER MILLS "It was 8.10pm on Friday 9 September when the concentration of prison officers in the Special Security Unit at Whitemoor prison was disrupted by a telephone call announcing that several of their charges were in the process of escaping over the prison wall.

"Until that time four of the seven officers on duty in the unit had been playing a game of Scrabble; a fifth was reading whilst the remaining two were busying themselves in the control room."

So begins Sir John Woodcock's withering account of how five armed IRA men and an armed robber made their escape from Whitemoor prison's secure unit - a prison within a prison thought to be escape-proof.

By 8.20pm any such delusion had been shattered. Six of the unit's 10 high-risk inmates had breached every security measure. Control staff watched incredulously as their closed-circuit television screens showed the inmates climbing over the wall "apparently unhurried by fear of challenge or recapture", Sir John said.

They had cut through the wire fencing in the exercise yard of the unit, scaled the inner wall, breached a further wire-mesh security fence and finally climbed over the prison's outer wall. By the time staff telephoned the Scrabble players in the special unit, one of the inmates was already over the outer wall.

"It was all happening in slow motion but everyone seemed powerless to stop it," Sir John said. They had plaited together more than 200 feet of rope and made a 30ft rope ladder with wooden rungs and a metal device to clamp it to the wall. They had ropes to lower themselves to the floor, bolt-cutters, a torch and other tools. They had nearly £500 in cash and, most worryingly, they had two guns, smuggled into the jail.

Jolted into action by the alarm call, officers gave chase. One saw the last two inmates still climbing the rope over the inner wall and another sitting astride the wall. As the officer ran up, he was shot by the man on the wall. He is still recovering. Other officers continued the chase, but another inmate stood guard over the breach in the second fence, firing at least one shot at officers.

The escapers' freedom was short-lived. One was arrested just outside the perimeter wall after he was separated from the others. Three were arrested a short way from the wall, perhaps believing that unarmed police on a nearby bridge were armed. The last two were at large for only 90 minutes before they were detected by a thermal imager operated from a police helicopter.

But the escape, according to Sir John, had been a disaster waiting to happen. The ease with which the men breached the walls was symptomatic of a malaise at the jail and the special unit in particular.

It was a unit under the control of the inmates. Reports published after the breakout, in this newspaper and others, of intimidation of staff, of "appeasement" of prisoners and of inmates living in luxury - ordering officers to buy them exotic food and luxury goods - were not exaggerated. Sir John's report lists more than 300 items belonging to just one of the unit's inmates, including crystal glasses and a full dinner service, a Dior towel and 37 assorted designer shirts and T-shirts.

Sir John describes one inmate throwing a bag of potatoes at an officer after he returned from a "demeaning" shopping errand, because the potatoes were too small. Another put in a claim for £75 for the loss of his frozen food, which had thawed. A week after the escape, frozen meat worth £300 was delivered to the jail by an inmate's relative.

The amount of money passing through the men's hands was equally astonishing. Inmates had between £550 and £3,800 in their accounts. Visitors would arrive with bags of gifts and goods, while at other jails even a handbag is not permitted. For a long time neither visitors nor their bags were properly searched. Prisoners were allowed to put up curtains, not only in the visiting rooms but also in the hobby rooms, allowing them to prepare their escape.

Security on visits was "unbelievably lax", Sir John said. The string of concessions to inmates had combined to produce a sense of resignation among the special unit's staff and a feeling that it was not worth confronting abuses.

The report makes clear that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, was aware of the privileges. In January 1994 the Tory MP Lady Olga Maitland wrote to Mr Howard expressing her concern about "hotel-style conditions". Advised by Derek Lewis, the director general of the prison service, Mr Howard replied defending the regime, which was designed to compensate for the claustrophobia of the unit.

"In the highest-security prison within a prison this was unbelievable and frankly unforgivable," Sir John said.

Graphic Omitted