Following another convicted murderer goning on the run from prison for the third time Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright said there would now be ”major changes” brought in as a ”matter of urgency”…. causing one prisons expert to say the Ministry of Justice was ‘dropping its bottle’ over the issue..
Arnold Pickering, 44, from Chadderton, Greater Manchester, failed to return to HMP Kennet in Maghull, Merseyside, after leaving the Category C jail on day release at about 9.30am on Saturday.
Another inmate, Thomas Moffett, 51, from Blackburn, Lancashire, who is serving an indeterminate sentence for a number of robberies carried out in his home town in 2006, also failed to return from day release on Saturday.
Last night Merseyside Police said that officers from Lancashire Constabulary had arrested a 51-year-old man for being unlawfully at large. The man was arrested in Blackburn, Lancashire, at around 9.15pm.
Pickering last absconded in December 2009 when he was let out on day release from HMP Kirkham to work on the bins in Manchester city centre.
He was one of eight prisoners taking part in a controversial scheme run by the Prison Service with Enterprise Manchester – which emptied the bins for Manchester Council at the time.
He handed himself in four days later in Motherwell, Scotland.
Pickering, who stabbed a man to death in Oldham in 1990, had also escaped from Strangeways in Manchester on a previous occasion.
He was jailed in 1991 for life and ordered to serve a minimum of 18 years.
Pickering had been risk assessed as suitable for temporary release on licence by the Ministry of Justice, said Merseyside Police.
A spokesman for Merseyside Police said yesterday evening: “Both prisoners were due back at around 4.30pm yesterday but failed to return and this was reported to Merseyside Police at around 7pm. Since then, officers have been carrying out extensive inquiries and working with partner agencies and other forces to locate them and return them to prison.
“It’s believed both men may be in the Southport area.
“The prisoners have both been risk assessed as suitable for temporary release on licence by the Ministry of Justice, although any member of the public who sees them is advised not to approach them but to call the police.”
Pickering is described as about 5ft 11in, of medium build and with blue eyes.
The disappearance of the two men is highly embarrassing for the Government coming just two weeks after notorious armed robber Michael Wheatley – known as Skullcracker – absconded from Standford Hill open prison on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, while on temporary release.
Ministers said at the time that there would be a full review of the case, including an assessment of the release on temporary licence (ROTL) process.
Following the latest case, Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright said there would now be ”major changes” brought in as a ”matter of urgency”.
”I am not prepared to see public safety compromised. The system for allowing prisoners out on temporary licence has been too lax up till now and we are making major changes to address this,” he said in a statement.
”In light of recent incidents I have tasked officials with implementing these changes as a matter of urgency. This means that there will shortly be significant restrictions on who is granted temporary release – which from now on must be earnt – tightening up of monitoring arrangements and abolishing any leave without a clear link to rehabilitation.
”All other elements of the ROTL review will be in place by the autumn – including tagging when the technology is available.
”Temporary release can be an important tool in helping offenders reintegrate but not at the cost of public protection.”
Conservative backbencher Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley, described the latest disappearances as an ” absolute scandal”.
He questioned why convicted murderers were ever given temporary release when figures which he obtained through parliamentary answers showed 106 had absconded in the past 10 years,
He said that when he tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill currently going through Parliament which would have prevented the temporary release of murderers, it was blocked by the Government.
”It is an absolute scandal in the prison system. How on earth people like this can ever be given temporary release from prison on licence is beyond me,” he said.
”This is a regular occurence – murderers are walking out of prison willy nilly. It’s a joke. I’m exasperated. I think the whole system is completely ridiculous.”
Officers are appealing to anyone with any information to call Merseyside Police on either 0151 777 3803 or 0151 777 3891, or via 101.
Peter McParlin, chairman of the Prison Officers Association (POA), said: “We have been saying for many years now that we have overcrowding in the prison estate, people are being put into open conditions who are unsuitable for open conditions. Twenty prisons have closed in the last three years and prison staff numbers have reduced by 6,000 since 2010.
“There is immense pressure on the system and it is clear to me that the tick box mentality that goes into transferring prisoners to open conditions has failed the public.”
However Mark Leech, editor of Converse, the national newspaper for prisoners in England and Wales said the Ministry of Justice was “dropping its bottle” over the issue of lifers release on temporary licence (ROTL) and it should instead keep its nerve.
Mr Leech said: “Releasing lifers on ROTL from a Category C prison is a very effective way of testing whether such prisoners can be trusted when they are away from scrutiny – and see if they are suitable for transfer to an open prison and onwards towards their final discharge.
“As in this case some lifers will fail to return, which shows they are not suitable for open conditions and they will be returned to fully closed conditions when caught – but the Ministry of Justice is now dropping its bottle over the issue when it should have the courage to defend a system of Category C ROTL which has worked exceptionally well for decades – we must not allow mistakes of individual practice to effect the vital issue of overall principle.”