Seventh inmate lost by prison escort service

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The Independent Online
GROUP 4, the beleaguered security firm charged with transporting prisoners to court, faced further embarrassment yesterday when it lost its seventh inmate within two weeks of beginning its contract.

The Dutch-owned company, paid pounds 9.5m a year to move prisoners in the East Midlands, Humberside and parts of Yorkshire, said that a defendant at Sheffield magistrates' court had escaped after a struggle with two of its staff.

The firm is losing inmates at a rate of more than than four a week, a performance which compares poorly with that of police and prison officers who only had about 40 escapes in the region during 1992. There have also been complaints that prisoners have arrived at court late, leaving them little time to talk with their lawyers and sometimes delaying hearings.

Brian Caton, national vice-chairman of the Prison Officers' Association, said yesterday that prison officers had to use crowbars to release inmates from a Group 4 vehicle at Moorlands jail, Yorkshire, on Thursday after the prisoners had damaged its lock. He said: 'In the space of a week since taking over the duties of the most professional prison service in the world, Group 4 have changed an essential public service into a dangerous nonsense.' He called for an inquiry.

Last night, Tony Blair, Labour's home affairs spokesman, said that Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, should 'get a grip' and withdraw the five-year contract 'if he cannot be satisfied that Group 4 are providing a service in an effective way'.

The latest escape came when Terrence Hyman appeared in Sheffield charged with failing to pay fines of pounds 422. Sentenced to 14 days' imprisonment, Hyman became violent and fought with two Group 4 custody officers. One suffered facial injuries as the defendant fled into the street and ran off, according to the company.

On Thursday, Group 4's directors met leaders of the prison service to devise a plan of action to improve Britain's first privatised escort service. Derek Lewis, director-general of the prison service, later exonerated Group 4, saying that few of the blunders had been the company's fault.

Nevertheless, the problems will undoubtedly hamper the firm's efforts to win further lucrative contracts under the Home Office's rolling privatisation programme.