It was disclosed yesterday that the director general of the service, Derek Lewis, who is paid £125,000 a year - more than twice the Prime Minister - received an extra £35,000 for his department's work last year.
However, the news that Mr Lewis is to receive such a large bonus in the year that saw an embarrassing series of security blunders has caused further anger.
His pay is not expected to be affected by the security lapses because it is based on a series of performance-related targets which do not take into account the severity of any mistakes made by personnel at any level.
In September, a prison officer was shot at Whitemoor prison in Cambridge during an attempted break-out by six inmates, including five IRA prisoners.
Two weeks later, a pound of Semtex and three detonators were found at the prison in a container storing prisoners' possessions.
Guns have been found at other jails and the service has been accused of political gaffes, such as the decision to transfer Patrick Magee, the Brighton bomber, back to Northern Ireland the day after the IRA declared its ceasefire.
Nevertheless, Mr Lewis's bonus, which can by up to 35 per cent of his wage, is expected to be unaffected.
With about a quarter of the current financial year to go, the Prison Service is managing to meet almost all of its performance targets, such as a reduction in the number of escapes compared with last year, more toilets in cells, and an increase in the time inmates spend out of their cells.
Mr Lewis said: "The priorities are set for the Prison Service and it seems right that the Prison Service and I should be held accountable for these objectives, and where there's performance-related pay, it should be on that published basis."
Commenting about the bonus to the year up to March 1994, he said: "It was paid very much earlier in the year and announced at the time. There has been no secret about it."
But John Prescott, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, said: "It is an absurdity of the moment - paying bonuses to people while at the same time cutting back on the police service. If the Home Secretary prefers to reward someone in these circumstancesit seems to me to be the wrong priority."
The Home Secretary yesterday defended the award. Michael Howard said the 28 per cent bonus was for a fixed period during which the service met the targets laid down in Mr Lewis's contract.
"If you look at the performance of the prison service over the period for which this payment was authorised, the prison service largely fulfilled the key indicators."
He added: "Obviously the extent to which decisions are made in future depends on the extent to which the prison service meets its targets."
Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrats' deputy leader, said: "The public will find it impossible to understand how someone on a pretty high salary should get a massive bonus when there has been so much going on in the prisons.
"There have been escapes and discoveries of weapons inside prisons, as well as continuing problems with drugs.''
Mr Beith added: "Nobody claims it is an easy job, but he seems pretty well-paid to start with."Reuse content