Prisoners face curbs on leave: Home visits system under review as public concern mounts

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The Independent Online
JAIL INMATES face a clampdown on home visits as the result of a wide-ranging review by the Prison Service, it emerged yesterday.

Derek Lewis, the service's director-general, said yesterday that reform was 'at the top of our agenda'. He added: 'We are not satisfied with how the system is working at the moment.'

Mr Lewis was speaking as police launched a nation-wide hunt for a convicted murderer, who escaped while on a visit from Downview prison, Surrey, to his family, in Langley, Berkshire. Robert Gardner, 34, sentenced to life for murder in 1980, escaped through a window at a relative's house while his prison escort sat in the next room.

His escape is the latest in a series of incidents involving temporary release of violent offenders which have given rise to public concern. Earlier this week, MPs criticised a decision to allow a child rapist out at weekends to stay only three miles from his victim's home.

Last week, it emerged that another rape victim, a 15-year-old girl, had been forced to leave her home because her attacker had been given weekend leave. And two weeks ago, Malcolm Smith was jailed for life for killing Jayne Harvell while on home leave from Verne prison in Dorset. He had served three months of an 18-month sentence for robbery and false imprisonment and had a record of violence.

Although safeguards governing home leave were tightened only last October - ironically in response to the Woolf report into prisons which called for greater use of home leave to maintain prisoners' links with their families - there were still weaknesses, Mr Lewis said.

One issue currently being examined is whether sex offenders and others convicted of violent crimes should be subject to more stringent criteria with regard to home leave. Another is deciding whether conditions of temporary leave should be tightened to ensure that people convicted of crimes against the person are not released to an address in the same town as their victim.

Another perceived weakness in current rules is the automatic qualification after a third of the sentence has been served, which may not have given prison staff and probation officers sufficient time to decide the level of risk that the offender might present.

However, Mr Lewis said he hoped the conclusions of the review team - which includes police, probation, prison reform groups, Victim Support, and academics - would not lead to a large drop in the numbers of inmates qualifying for weekend freedom. About 35,000 prisoners are granted home leave each year and about 94 per cent return on time and without incident. Most of the others come back a few hours late with 'a suitable excuse'. The clampdown is aimed at the 'small percentage' who abscond or commit offences.

'We have the difficult task of balancing the interests of the public and the victims against minimising the risk of re-offending, when prisoners are released,' he said.

The review team will report by the end of the year.