The armed escape of five IRA men and an armed robber from Whitemoor prison was “a disaster waiting to happen” .
In a withering report into the escape of 1991, Sir John Woodcock outlines a litany of security disasters and failings by Ministers down to prison staff.
“So many things were wrong, so many procedures and policies totally ignored and with such regularity that the escape could have taken place on any day of the week with the same chance of success,” he concludes. “At times it was difficult to find something being done in accordance with the manuals.”
His 100 page report, the most critical since the escape of George Blake, the spy, 30 years ago, is littered with words such as “disgraceful, dangerous, unprofessional, confused, outrageous and disjointed”.
Three-year-old Whitemoor had become a jail where the “tail”, some of the most dangerous prisoners in England, wagged the “dog”, the management and staff. Prisoners were “pampered” and “,feather bedded'”, staff were “intimidated” and “confused”.
Governors appeared to have washed their hands of the Special Secure Unit. And prison service managers gave them little support, leaving dangerous practices to continue. “There was a yawning gap between the Prison Service’s ideals and actual practice,” heconcludes.
And he makes clear that blame goes to ministerial level: his report shows that both Angela Rumbold, then prisons minister and Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, were aware and sanctioned some of the practices in the unit.
He identified two underlying beliefs that set the scene for the escape ,one that the unit was escape-proof and the other a fear of a Strangeways -type riot. This set the scene for a regime of non-confrontation where the prisoners were able to push back the boundaries of acceptable practice. In addition there was “an additional fear engendered by the abuse threats and innuendo of a group of the most dangerous offenders”. Prisoners who had the resources, connections and will to carry out any threat.
Sir John said the intimidation of officers added to the ethos of concession and, “coupled with a lack of positive; leadership, produced the conditioning that led to the inept practices outlined in this report”.
Sir John has not discovered how the men managed to smuggle two guns into the jail, or, as was discovered later, enough Semtex to blast a huge hole in the perimeter wall.
But he does identify “unbelievable, dangerous and inept” practices, which enabled that to happen.
Security surrounding prison visits was unbelievably lax, it adds. There had been a decision to suspend rub down searches, because of the complaint of one female visitor to the unit. It says the searches were suspended, with the knowledge of Mrs Rumbold, despite warnings about the risks that visitors might smuggle in equipment.
The suspension of these searches ” represented a victory for inmates’ power, which was the foundation of more to follow.” But the fact that it had taken 17 months to resolve the search issue was dangerous and unprofessional. The report says: “It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the guns and other items were brought into the SSU during this vulnerable period.”
The report is highly critical of the failure of the Prison Service to act on lessons learnt from the 1991 Brixton jail break-out, in which two armed IRA men escaped. Sir John said the service had to learn by its mistakes.
Within the unit prisoners had been allowed to put up curtains so that they could plot and plan and fashion their escape tools without being detected. “Whilst the absence of searching was bad enough, possibly even more important was the implied message tostaff that security was not important.”
Peter Sherry, 39, one of the Brighton bombers, and fellow IRA men Paul Magee, Liam McCotter, Gilbert McNamee and Liam O’Dwyer, and Andrew Russell, 32, an armed robber who had already made oneBescape bid in a helicopter from Gartree were able to do what was thought impossible.
The main recommendations by Sir John Woodcock and the Home Secretary’s additions
Woodcock recommendations: To improve surveillance and observation To improve the contol of prisoners’ property and searching of their cells To tighten up security arrangements for the transfer of inmates property To improve the security arrangements for new prison construction To strengthen physical security at Whitemoor.
Additional decisions by Michael Howard A more systematic method of recording intelligence and security information on staff to be introduced High security unit staff are to get personal alarms Walls and fences of high security units will be reinforced with more alarms, detection and anti -climbing devices.