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Last Updated: Monday, 22 May 2006, 12:49 GMT 13:49 UK
700 escaped open jails last year
HM Prison Leyhill
The Home Office says absconders can be criminally charged
Around 700 prisoners absconded from open prisons last year, according to the head of the Prison Service.

Phil Wheatley made the disclosure as the Home office came under fire after a raft of allegations about its work.

Tory David Davis says ministers "took their eye off the ball" after it emerged 393 offenders had absconded from Leyhill open prison since 1999.

But Mr Wheatley says over three quarters of absconders will have been rearrested and returned to custody.

'Risk' of open system

He said the rate of prisoner absconders was falling and was at its lowest level since 1999. In 2005-6, 693 prisoners absconded, compared with 831 in 2004-5.

There was a degree of risk in running open prisons, of which there are 15 in England and Wales, because there were no perimeter walls and inmates had the opportunity to walk out, he said.

Has the Prison Service been inappropriately transferring prisoners to open prisons such as this because of the overcrowding problem
David Laws
Lib Dem home affairs

The numbers absconding from Leyhill - about one a week - was an average rate, he added

But Lib Dem spokesman David Laws said that Parliamentary questions he asked had revealed that of the 393 who walked out of Leyhill, 22 were murderers, seven were rapists, five had manslaughter convictions, 24 were drug dealers, 57 convicted of robbery and 125 had committed burglary.

Mr Laws described the disclosures as "shambolic" and urged an urgent review.

He said 300 of the 393 absconders had gone in the last three years.

"In other words it's got very much worse in the last three years and the question we have to ask therefore is has the Home Office, has the Prison Service been inappropriately transferring prisoners to open prisons such as this because of the overcrowding problem?" he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"If that is happening that is clearly unacceptable."

'Nothing new'

Ex-Labour minister John Denham, now chairman of the home affairs select committee, said part of the problem was the failure to prepare inmates properly for release.

However, a Home Office spokesman said that open prisons like Leyhill played an important role in the resettlement of offenders as they approached the end of their sentences.

"The aim of this is to reduce reoffending and ultimately to protect the public. All prisoners undergo a thorough risk assessment before being considered as suitable for open conditions," a spokesman said.

"Absconders can be criminally charged and a number of prisoners have received additional custodial sentences."

Brian Caton, general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, told BBC Five Live this was not a new problem.

"When you've got 77,000 people in a system that is only built and can only run with about 50,000, people shouldn't be surprised that it... puts prisoners where they shouldn't be, at that state in their sentence and we've been calling for politicians to look at this for many, many years," he said.

'Ministry of injustice'

The revelations came as it emerged that 2,700 people were wrongly labelled criminals because of errors by the Criminal Records Bureau.

It also follows the suspension of an immigration official facing claims he offered help coach an asylum applicant in return for sex.

All the allegations follow the continuing fall-out from the revelation that more than 1,000 foreign prisoners were released at the end of their sentence without being considered for deportation.

Shadow home secretary David Davis said the series of alleged failings at the Home Office had led to the department being called the "ministry of injustice".

He said sex-for-passports allegations had been made before and also questioned why so many serious offenders were able to abscond from Leyhill open prison for so long.

Of the people wrongly labelled as having a criminal record, Mr Davis told Today that it was no consolation to know they were in a tiny minority.

He said he had been writing to ministers from as long back as David Blunkett's days as Home Secretary (2001-2004) raising concerns about the CRB's operation.

MP urges review of open prisons
12 Feb 06 |  Bristol
Murderer absconds from open jail
21 Jun 05 |  Bristol
Hunt as murderer goes on the run
14 Aug 04 |  Bristol
Jailbreak duo escape punishment
02 Jun 04 |  Gloucestershire
Escaped drugs baron found dead
12 Feb 04 |  Scotland

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