First, six prisoners, five of them IRA terrorists armed with guns, shoot a prison officer and escape - albeit briefly - from the jail's special secure unit, a prison within a prison. Then we learn they were fleeing a life of relative luxury, with prison officers going on errands to buy them exotic food and expensive clothing. Finally, on Thursday, comes the discovery of detonators and enough Semtex to blow a massive hole in the Cambridgeshire prison's perimeter wall.
IRA terrorists making bombs against a background of discarded lobster take-away trays in one of the country's newest and supposedly most secure prisons presents an almost unbelievable scenario - risible if it was not true.
To a Home Secretary anxious to polish up his tarnished law and order credentials in the run-up to next month's party conference, the revelations are highly damaging. But even if he weathers this storm, sooner or later he will have to answer whether Whitemoor is a ghastly one-off or just a symptom of a wider malaise in the prison service - as the discovery of guns and ammunition in other jails seems to suggest.
Perks and privileges either approved or covert have always been used to head off unrest. Certainly, there are indications that jails are considerably more volatile than they were about 18 months ago. Then, as a result of previous government policy - the shortlived 1991 Criminal Justice Act designed to keep petty offenders out of jail - the prison population was lower and more manageable. The Prison Service had also started to implement some recommendations of Lord Justice Woolf following his inquiry into the 1990 riots at Strangeways in Manchester and other jails. Prisoners have been given better grievance procedures, more contact with their families, improved sanitation and longer constructive periods out of their cells.
Now, with Michael Howard's declaration that 'prison works' and a series of initiatives that ensure more people end up behind bars, the jail population is about to break through 50,000, and overcrowding is severe. Further, the number of prisoners serving sentences of four or more years - who are inevitably more difficult and pose a greater security threat - has leapt to more than 13,000. The unions argue that their officers are coping with fewer staff and tight budgets, which they say puts security at risk. Keeping a weather eye on the threat of privatisation is a distraction, they argue, which keeps morale low.
Shocking as they are, though, the events at Whitemoor, a jail troubled by riots, threats, intimidation and problems of control since it opened in 1992, must be kept in perspective. No one will have been more surprised or resentful of the IRA men's lifestyle there than the vast majority of Britain's prisoners. Despite Woolf, more than a third of them still live in squalid and cramped conditions in Victorian local prisons. Many are confined in their cells for prolonged hours with nothing to occupy them. Some are still suffering the indignity of slopping out and most wear prison garb with only one or two changes of underwear a week.
At any given time about 16,500 prisoners will be unconvicted people awaiting trial - and 65 per cent of those will be found innocent or released by the courts. They have limited access to family, to any chance of meaningful education or work.
In fact, only a very few - about 20 to 25 - of the country's prisoners live the kind of prison regime enjoyed by the would-be escapees from Whitemoor. These are the those who are deemed to pose the greatest security risk - men with a long history of violence, mostly facing sentences of 20 years or more and who have nothing to lose by escaping or disrupting prison life. Locked away in the system's three small self-contained special secure units, they are afforded extra privileges - own clothes, kitchens, food, telephones - to balance a degree of humanity with the claustrophobia of supposedly impenetrable security.
For the past 30 years, the special secure unit system has been seen to work in that there has been only one escape. The fact that security has now been breached and in such a spectacular fashion might indicate that the balance between humanity and security was seriously wrong.
The escape happened despite numerous warnings of lax security. In the preceding months, Judge Stephen Tumim, chief inspector of prisons, and the Prison Board of Visitors had made their concerns known to the Home Secretary, yet no effective action appears to have been taken. After pounds 500 and three cameras had been found in the unit, a senior staff member had asked despairingly in a memo to officers: 'What else - a gun next?' Four weeks later, the IRA men shot a prison officer during the attempted escape.
These were the problems that Brodie Clark, regarded as one of the country's best governors, had been put in to sort out three months ago. Instead, they blew up in his face.
Andrew Barclay, previous governor of Whitemoor, is now part of Judge Tumim's prison inspectorate team, which had been so critical. How much blame will be laid at Mr Barclay's door and how much will be passed up the ladder to management, Derek Lewis, the director- general of the Prison Service, or even Mr Howard will become clear when Sir John Woodcock, the former chief inspector of constabulary, completes his inquiry into the escape bid.
Security policy is set by the Home Secretary, its implementation is the the responsibility of the Prison Service and therefore, at each prison, of the governor. There can be no doubt that the decision to allow prisoners in the secure units their own cooking facilities, gymnasium, clothes, telephones and to place shopping orders with staff will have been taken at Home Office level, in consultation with the Prison Service.
The governor will have had the discretion to monitor the amount spent by the prisoners - and could presumably have stopped them spending more than the stipulated amount. The governor will also have had the discretion to decide staffing levels and appointments at the prison as a whole and for the secure unit. Whether the same officers guard the secure unit or are rotated between different parts of the prison will have been the governor's decision. Judge Tumim was highly critical of an apparently cosy relationship between staff and prisoners on the unit.
But Sir John is unlikely to examine the wider issues of privileges afforded prisoners, the need for separate secure units, staffing levels and accountability.
Mr Howard has talked of the gravity of what has happened at Whitemoor and promised to fulfil his promise of more austere prisons. But if, as the Prison Service seeks to argue, events at Whitemoor are unique, and not a symptom of wider problems, Mr Howard would do well to hold his fire. The danger is that if he sweeps away in an instant the privileges and consensus that have allowed jails to function relatively peaceably since 1990, he will recreate exactly the scenario that detonated the Strangeways riots.
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