Letter: Home Office responsibility

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The Independent Online
Sir: Public opprobrium regarding the recent escape from the Special Secure Unit at Whitemoor prison of five IRA prisoners and one other ('Guard shot in jailbreak', 10 September) will doubtless be directed at staff at the prison. This opinion would be unfair and uninformed.

Until March this year, I was a member of the Board of Visitors at Whitemoor and the board's founder chairman, appointed by the Home Secretary in May 1991. Required to report regularly to the Home Secretary our independent opinion as to the running of the prison, we aired our concern about the excessive 'privileges' accorded to prisoners in dispersal prisons. Coupled with our concern about the sparsity of searching of visitors to prisoners due to staffing level restrictions, security is inevitably compromised.

The decision not to body-search visitors to IRA prisoners was made not locally by management, but at Home Office level. The implications resulting from this decision are now obvious. If the resignation of anyone is called for, it should be that of the Home Secretary. Since the elimination of staff overtime, the gradual reduction in staffing levels, accompanied by the expectation of an enhanced regime for prisoners, has meant that routine duties such as cell-searching cannot be conducted in accordance with governors' contracts.

Prison is a last option available to the courts for sentencing offenders, but the option of a custodial sentence must be available for the protection of the public in certain cases. It is an expensive option, and must be adequately funded if staff in the prison service are to be expected to perform their duties diligently and efficiently. Treasury economies must not preclude the protection of the public and staff who work in Her Majesty's prisons.

Yours faithfully,

PADDY SELIGMAN

Gunthorpe, Norfolk

12 September

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