Leading Article: Howard selects his scapegoats

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The Independent Online
The governor at Parkhurst, John Marriott, should have expected the sack. He was in charge of a top security prison from which three dangerous inmates escaped, despite repeated warnings about lax security. The public could fairly expect his head t o roll.Likewise, senior staff at the jail must also take responsibility for the break out.

But the disciplinary measures announced yesterday by Michael Howard smacked of scapegoating. This Home Secretary usually remains complacently aloof from the running of the Prison Service. Yet after only a brief investigation, without due process, he has seen fit to blight the careers of subordinates at prison level. This seems to be a decision born out of panic and aimed more at removing the spotlight from a beleaguered Cabinet minister than at identifying the causes of the Parkhurst fiasco.

As Mr Marriott packs his bags, we should remember that he called five years ago for the installation of a touch-sensitive "geophone" alarm system in the perimeter wall of the jail. That call was echoed repeatedly by the prison's board of visitors. Had the system been in place, the three prisoners might not have escaped. A shortage of money seems to explain why the system is only now about to be installed.

Likewise, Judge Stephen Tumim, the chief inspector of prisons, drew attention last October to security problems at Parkhurst. Mr Howard claims that the warning was fully acted upon. But his protestations remain unconvincing, not least to Judge Tumim, whohas called for an independent inquiry.

In short, Mr Howard has a great deal to explain before he can absolve himself of blame for events at Parkhurst. Derek Lewis, the director general of the Prison Service, also has many questions to answer.

The danger is that they will not be called properly to account for their role in this affair. The inquiry into the Parkhurst breakout is being conducted by Richard Tilt, who was appointed by Mr Lewis and is therefore unlikely to criticise either his bossor Mr Howard.

The only other way to discover what went wrong is an inquiry by Sir John Learmont. He was commissioned to undertake a wider review of prison security after the escape of five IRA inmates from Whitemoor prison last year.

Sir John should now use his powers to examine the actions of both the Home Secretary and Mr Lewis. Confidence in the Prison Service will not be restored merely by sacking subordinates. It will require the full and fair apportionment of blame, however high that may lie - and resignations by those found to be at fault.