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Staff at Semtex prison knew of security failings

First Edition

THAT the Semtex discovered at Whitemoor prison appeared not to have been a necessary tool for the IRA break-out from the special secure unit, two weeks ago, compounds Home Office and Prison Service embarrassment. The men involved in the attempted escape were armed and the latest discovery illustrates the ease with which inmates were able to acquire weapons in the Cambridgeshire jail.

A month before the breakout, senior staff were aware of major security failings - but also apparently failed to take effective action. Three cameras and 500 had been smuggled into the special secure unit holding the high-risk prisoners, prompting a middle-ranking governor to express his concerns about safety and security. In a memo dated 9 August, he prophetically asks senior staff: 'What else - a gun next?'

Four weeks before that, Judge Stephen Tumim warned the Home Secretary that the special unit was 'out of control' with its nine or ten high-risk prisoners enjoying too cosy a relationship with staff. But still there appear to have been no effective changes.

In the three years since the prison opened, inmates in the tiny unit have been granted special privileges to compensate them for claustrophobic living conditions and interminable sentences. Staff shopped for takeaway meals and trainers for the men. The inmates cooked food for their visitors and had unlimited access to telephones.

Yet threats and intimidation against staff meant visitor searches were, at best, 'cursory'. The unit was closed so Cambridgeshire police could investigate the escape. It was this that led to the discovery.