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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 January 2007, 16:14 GMT
Prisoners will abscond - minister
Ford prison
Open prisons integrate offenders back into society
It is impossible to stop inmates walking out of open prisons, the minister responsible has told MPs.

"No abscond is acceptable but absconds happen in open prisons by the very nature of open prisons," Gerry Sutcliffe said in a Westminster debate.

He was responding to accusations of a "lax" security regime at Ford open prison in West Sussex.

He pledged to visit the jail after claims by local MP Nick Herbert two inmates a week were walking out of it.

Mr Herbert claimed security at the Category D establishment had become a "laughing stock" and it was "no wonder the prison had been dubbed HM prison Butlins".

He also highlighted concerns - raised by probation and prisoner officers - that higher risk prisoners were being transferred to Ford and other open prisons from more secure jails because of overcrowding.

'Public safety'

A leaked memo from the governor of Ford suggested prisoners "who should really be in Category C conditions" were being transferred there and that ministers knew and were "taking the risk", Mr Herbert told MPs.

People do abscond - is the honourable gentleman arguing we should not have open prisons, that we should not try and reintegrate people back into society?
Gerry Sutcliffe, prisons minister

He claimed this policy, which has been denied by the Home Office, had "serious implications for public safety".

Mr Herbert said he had been repeatedly assured during last year's foreign prisoner scandal that there was "no problem" with prisoners absconding from Ford.

But he later learned, after "dragging" the figures from the Home Office, that 61 prisoners had escaped from the jail in the year to November 2006, including four in one day, just a week before he visited the establishment.

Of the 61 absconders, 33 were foreign nationals, Mr Herbert told MPs, 19 had been considered for deportation and one was due to be deported.

All 141 foreign prisoners at Ford had now been moved to more secure prisons, said Mr Herbert, but it was still "unacceptable" that nearly 100 prisoners a year were absconding.

'Fish suppers'

One retired prison officer told Mr Herbert the gap in the security fence at Ford "has been a permanent fixture for years".

Prisoners had also been seen by local people walking into nearby Littlehampton to drink at pubs and even hiring taxis to collect "up to 30 fish suppers at a time" from the town, said the MP.

And one inmate, serving life for murder, had not been registered as missing until he had been picked up by police and returned to the prison, according to press reports.

Mr Herbert said he understood the role of open prisons in integrating prisoners back into the community.

But he said: "An open prison cannot mean no security and security is plainly inadequate there and I am not convinced the proper monitoring of offenders going in and out of the prison takes place."

He called for a security audit planned for March to be brought forward to "rebuild confidence in the prison", and tighter vetting of inmates transferred there from more secure jails.

Rumours

Prisons minister Gerry Sutcliffe said he would look in to Mr Herbert's concerns and visit the prison with him.

But he disputed the MP's figures on escapes, saying absconds at Ford had "gone from a high of 143 in 2003/04 to figures up to the end of November 2006 of 47".

He denied the categorisation of prisoners had been "secretly relaxed" because of overcrowding, insisting proper assessments were being carried out.

He also denied local "rumours" a higher security Category C prison was to be built at Ford, saying there were no such plans at present.

He defended the role of open prisons in helping offenders back into society but said it was in "the very nature" of such establishments that some inmates would abscond.

"These people coming towards the end of their sentence are risk-assessed. The vast majority go on to be integrated back into society.

"But people do abscond. Is the honourable gentleman arguing we should not have open prisons, that we should not try and reintegrate people back into society as they are coming to the end of their sentence?," he asked Mr Herbert.


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