Security firm faces inquiry over errors: Failings in transport service unveiled as prison director defends secrecy

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THE Director General of Prisons, Derek Lewis, last night ordered an inquiry into a rash of hitches that marred the launch of the privatisation of prisoner-escort services.

In a series of errors, a prisoner escaped from custody, others refused to get into new security vehicles and a judge asked why defendants in court cases had arrived late.

The security company Group 4 yesterday took over the transportation of prisoners between prisons and courts in the East Midlands and Humberside area, covering seven counties. Other areas in England and Wales will be put out to tender next year to relieve pressure on police and prison officers.

A Prisons Department spokesman said: 'Mr Lewis has ordered a full inquiry. He feels something can be learned from what has happened. It is the first day of a very large undertaking by Group 4 and we are sympathetic to the problems.'

In Hull, Humberside, a prisoner from Doncaster, South Yorkshire, escaped after magistrates remanded him on dishonesty charges. He ran out of the court.

In Leicestershire about a dozen prisoners refused to get into a security vehicle containing cells. It took three and half hours to persuade them into the vehicles to go 300 yards to court.

In Nottingham a judge asked Group 4 to explain why Crown Courts had been kept waiting for prisoners due to stand trial. A spokesman for Group 4 Prison Services said: 'Unfortunately with any new service, particularly one of this magnitude, there are bound to be teething problems.

'There is absolutely no reason to be concerned over the security of prisoners. Our staff worked extremely well.'

The Prison Officers' Association criticised the move and called on the Government to reverse its privatisation decision. 'This is stark evidence of political dogma triumphing over commonsense,' a spokesman said.