“The number of people absconding from open prisons has of course gone down.”
– Damian Green, policing minister, House of Commons, 6 May 2014
It’s been two days since the bank robber known as “skull cracker” went missing, and police have yet to find him.
Michael Wheatley, 55, was given 13 life sentences in 2002 for a string of raids on banks and building societies, earning his notorious nickname for his propensity to pistol-whip victims.
The point about “skull cracker” is that he was at HMP Standford Hill, an open prison – an establishment for category D prisoners who are seen as low risk and “can be reasonably trusted in open conditions”.
Over at the House of Commons, the case has led to renewed questions on the use of open prisons. Nick Gibb, the former Tory minister, said: “When considering a sentencing policy for those guilty of observing or engaging in violent behaviour, will you reconsider the department’s policy of moving violent offenders, such as Michael Wheatley, to open prisons like Standford Hill in Kent?”
The Policing Minister, Damian Green, replied: “I am sure across the house many of us will share your concern at people absconding.
“As we’ve heard today, the number of people absconding from open prisons has of course gone down, but I hope you are reassured we are already in the process of making conditions for those sent to an open prison tougher, both in terms of those qualifying to go to open prisons and also the punishments received for those who break the terms.”
Has Mr Green made himself a hostage to fortune? FactCheck has had a look.
There are 16 open prisons and open young offenders’ institutions (YOI) in England: HMPs Askham Grange; East Sutton Park young offenders institution; Ford; Hollesley Bay; Kirkham; Leyhill; Lindholme; Hatfield; Morton Hall; North Sea Camp; Prescoed YOI; Spring Hill; Standford Hill; Sudbury; Thorn Cross YOI; and Wealstun.
We asked the Ministry for Justice for figures on how many open prisoners had absconded, and they sent a table.
Mr Green is right, but only on the very narrow definition he uses, namely the number of people who’ve absconded from open prisons.
The total number of people absconding from these prisons in 2003/4 was 1,056, and by 2012/13, it had dropped to 186.
Problem is, it’s not really just about absconds from open prisons.
The case of the “skull cracker” isn’t technically an abscond, it’s what’s known as a “release on temporary licence failure”.
According to the Ministry of Justice, an abscond is when a prisoner leaves an open prison without authorisation, but a “release on temporary licence failure” is when a prisoner leaves a prison without authorisation and fails to return within the time they were supposed to.
The latter has gone up. Looking at open prisons, there were 211 such failures in 2004/5 (the earliest year available), and by 2012/13, that figure was 345.
Across the entire prison estate, the picture isn’t much better. There were 366 such failures in 2004/5, and 431 in 2012/13; in total, there have been 1,667 of them in the last five years.
Mr Green’s statement also masks another problem, which is that according to latest figures, the number of people absconding overall has begun to creep up again.
In 2011/12, there were 175 absconds overall, and the following year, the figure was 204 – a rise of 16 per cent.
Admittedly, it’s hard to establish a trend from two consecutive years, but it doesn’t look good overall – there have been 1,132 release on temporary licence failures over the last five years.
The reason that all of this could be a problem is because of fears that a criminal who is meant to be behind bars but isn’t then goes on to commit a crime.
We asked the MoJ for that number, but they said they didn’t have it.
Likewise, we asked them to say how many people released on temporary licences who failed to return within the correct time remain at large, but they said they couldn’t give us that either.
While Mr Green is technically right, he’s chosen a figure which is convenient and masks a more inconvenient truth – which is that more and more convicted criminals are failing to return to jail when they’re supposed to.
They may have got better at stopping prisoners absconding from open jails, but the government has got worse at preventing them from doing so from non-open prisons, which isn’t particularly reassuring.
To be fair to the justice system, the majority of those who abscond are subsequently caught. While there were 204 absconds in 2012/13, 14 of them remained at large, as at June 2012.
What’s more worrying is that the Ministry of Justice can’t tell us how many of them go on to commit crimes.
It’s understandable that people should be worried: of those in open prisons (4,092), the majority were offenders jailed for violence (1,227, or 30 per cent). Next largest cohort was prisoners jailed for drug offences: 1,115. There were 505 robbers and 215 sex offenders – about one in 20.
And many would agree that it’s better a prisoner gets acclimatised to life in front of bars through such measures before their eventual release – the aim of open prisons.
When we raised such matters with the Ministry of Justice, Mr Wright said: “We are not prepared to see public safety compromised. The system has been too lax up to now and we are changing that… There will be a full review of this case which will look at the ROTL process.”