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Daniel Khalife escape: how secure are UK prisons?

The escape of terror suspect Daniel Khalife from Wandsworth prison was hardly “The Shawshank Redemption”, said The Independent, but the “audacious” breakout invited a great deal of attention – and the “clamour for a scapegoat”.

The 21-year-old former soldier was awaiting trial on terror charges, which he denies, when he escaped from the prison kitchen last Wednesday by strapping himself to the underside of a delivery van. After an extensive police search, he was recaptured in west London on Saturday morning, pulled off a pushbike by a plain-clothes officer. Footage showed him sitting on the ground next to the Grand Union Canal after his arrest.

His escape “provoked a furious political row”, said The Guardian, and left ministers facing criticism over budget cuts, staff shortages and overcrowding that have left “potentially dangerous inmates in low-security prisons”.

What did the papers say?

Although Khalife is now back in custody, the “sensational” escape highlighted just how “squalid” conditions in the prison system are, said The Independent – “and how far the prison service has been run down”.

The chief inspector of prisons, Charlie Taylor, told the news site that “chronic underinvestment in staffing” and inexperienced officers were factors “clearly heightening the risk of escapes”. It “hardly needs to be pointed out” that if prisons are badly understaffed, they are less secure, said the site.

However, Ministry of Justice (MoJ) data published this year shows that 34 prisoners escaped from 2010/11 to 2021/22, far fewer than the previous 12 years when there were 206. There were also 1,808 absconds – when a prisoner escapes without “overcoming a physical security restraint” – compared with 8,961 in the previous 12 years. On average, over the past 16 years, around 55 prisoners have been freed from jail by mistake each year in England and Wales with the numbers being fairly consistent throughout that period.

In 2021, 24-year-old William Fernandez was accidentally released from Wormwood Scrubs while awaiting trial for sexual assault. He “went on to rape a 16-year-old girl” and assault another woman, said the Daily Mail.

Wandsworth suffered a “virtually identical escape” to that of Khalife in February 2019, said The Telegraph, when an inmate “clung onto the underside of a van to abscond from the jail”. Like Khalife, officers responsible for checking the underside of the vehicle “failed to spot him”.

In the Annual Prison Performance Ratings for 2022/23, published in July, Wandsworth was one of nine prisons of the 119 in England and Wales that was rated as a “serious concern”. Two watchdog reports last year warned that staffing levels at Wandsworth were a “serious problem”. Operational support grade officers (OSGs) are responsible for manning the security posts at the gates and checking vehicles. “They are among the lowest paid staff in prisons”, with the “highest turnover at 17% a year”, said The Telegraph. Sources told the paper that some do not receive the mandatory three weeks of security training.

According to an internal MoJ document accidentally published in August, staffing levels in prisons in England and Wales are approaching dangerously low levels, with 15% expected to have below 80% of the staff they need. The department blamed “over-ambitious commitments on prison expansion”, noted The Times.

“Huge funding challenges” over the past 13 years have meant that new prison officers are much younger, some recruited straight out of school. Long-term planning has been “significantly hampered” by the high turnover of politicians, with 11 justice secretaries and 13 prison ministers since the Conservatives took power in 2010.

MPs and unions have blamed the staffing crisis on the government’s austerity agenda, said the i news site. Since 2010, £900 million has been slahsed from the HM Prison Service’s budget. 

The chairman of the Justice Select Committee, Conservative MP Bob Neill, said prisons were not as protected from cuts as health and education, but suffered from failures in those systems while demand rose. He called it “the perfect storm”.

What next?

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk has launched an inquiry into how Khalife evaded security checks, but his escape prompts questions over staffing levels at Wandsworth prison, and why an inmate facing terror charges was awaiting trial in a lower-security category B prison.

The prime minister’s spokesperson told i news: “We are investing significant sums: £4 billion to create 20,000 extra places” in six new prisons, as well as increasing pay for staff. 

But this pledge has been “quietly dropped”, according to The Times, and fewer than half of these places will have been delivered by March 2025, according to MoJ projections. Plans for three new prisons have been delayed due to problems with planning permission. Labour has said it will deliver new cells, but has not revealed how.

A trial date for Khalife for the terrorism charges has been set for 13 November at Woolwich Crown Court in southeast London.

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