Nearly 90 prisoners are on the run from an open jail, including some who have been missing for years, it has been revealed – but one prisons expert says the problem is getting better not worse.
HMP Ford near Arundel, West Sussex, with some other open jails, has been at the centre of a number of high-profile cases recently.
This week it emerged that a public appeal by Sussex Police to help trace murderer Robert Donovan, 57, had only been made four years after he walked out from Ford.
The disclosure that 89 Ford inmates are at large comes as it emerged that violent robber Simon Rhodes-Butler, 37, handed himself into police last night after fleeing from the jail last month.
And in another case, it was revealed last night that an armed robber serving a life sentence has become the latest criminal to go on the run from HMP Ford.
David Blood, 48, who police said may pose a threat to the public, absconded from the Category D prison some time between 8.30am and 1pm yesterday.
It is thought to be the second time he has absconded from an open prison after going missing from HMP Sudbury in Derbyshire in April 2012.
Local Conservative MP, Nick Gibb, has raised concern at the number of inmates convicted of serious offences going missing from HMP Ford.
Mr Gibb, the MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, said: “I’m worried about how prisoners are chosen to be sent to Ford open prison, and that too many are absconding.
“The theory is that these are prisoners who are coming to the end of their sentences and therefore should no longer be at risk of absconding.
“The risk assessment of prisoners who are being sent to Ford open prison is clearly not vigorous enough.”
Sussex Police said the average number of prisoners who have absconded from HMP Ford in recent years stands at 23 annually, but that currently 89 are at large.
Of those 89 still missing, eight have convictions for violence.
Superintendent Lawrence Hobbs, of Sussex Police, said: “I want to reassure people that we recognised some time ago that our processes needed improving.
“We have taken some really positive action and have a team working on this issue.
“We are confident that in the main the risk to the public is low, as that’s why they were in an open prison.
“Of the 89 outstanding, only eight have convictions for violence and we are prioritising our efforts to trace and arrest them.
“We value the support of the media and the public in helping us to find these absconders and we are absolutely determined to find all those still at large.”
Mr Hobbs added: “I must stress that we do not pro-actively seek the help of the public or the media on every occasion that a prisoner absconds.
“We consider each case individually, taking into account the risk the prisoner poses to the public and the likelihood of them re-offending.
“If we believe people need to be told about someone, or we have information that an absconder could be in a particular area, we would make an appeal.”
The Ministry of Justice said Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has ordered major changes to tighten up temporary release processes and open prison eligibility.
It was the case of “Skullcracker” Michael Wheatley which prompted ministers to launch a major review of the case, including a broader assessment of the release on temporary licence (ROTL) process.
He was jailed for life for a raid on a building society while on the run from HMP Standford Hill in Kent, the second time he has been jailed for holding up the same branch.
Most recent Ministry of Justice figures show there were 1,242 indeterminate sentenced prisoners – that is, those serving life and imprisonment for public protection sentences (IPP) – as at December 31 last year. This includes 643 lifers and 599 IPP inmates in open prisons.
Mark Leech editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisons in England and Wales said the focus on a few recent cases masks the reality of an improving situation.
Mr Leech said: “In 2003 over 1300 prisoners absconded, that fell to just over 500 in 2008 and last year it fell again to 204, so the facts reveal an improving not deteriorating situation.
“Prisoners will always abscond from open prisons, it’s a fact of prison life because situations change daily in the lives of individual prisoners – all that the prison service can do is ensure those who are sent to open prisons represent the lowest form of risk to the public, and when prisoners do abscond much more needs to be done to advertise their disappearance.”