The Wandsworth Prison escape: what Ministers aren't telling us
Is the Ministry of Justice making excuses?
The most shocking aspect of Daniel Khalife's escape from Wandsworth Prison on September 6 is not the fact that 80 staff had failed to report for duty that day, as Damian Hinds, the Prisons Minister, has just revealed. Sickness absence and staff shortages have been a serious problem in jails across England and Wales for some years - it's just a shame it's taken a prison escape to bring it to the public's attention.
No, that's not shocking, and it may not even be relevant. Hinds said that staffing levels were "above the minimum" level required to "deliver a safe and decent regime" at Wandsworth and that "all staff" were on duty in the kitchen, where Khalife had been working, and at the gatehouse, which deals with vehicles entering and exiting. "An initial investigation into Daniel Khalife’s escape did not find the staffing level to be a contributing factor," said the Minister, so let's take him at his word.
What I find shocking is that a prisoner escaped from Wandsworth four years ago in an almost identical way and, as is clearly evident, lessons simply weren't learned and security wasn't tightened.
In February 2019, the inmate secured himself to the underside of a security van which had dropped off prisoners who'd been to court. Clinging to the Serco vehicle, he made it out of the gates at Wandsworth without being spotted, just as Khalife allegedly did by strapping himself to the under-carriage of a food lorry. He wasn't such a high profile prisoner as the terrorism suspect and was recaptured without a huge manhunt so the case didn't make the headlines, but it was a warning of a significant weakness at Wandsworth that ought to have been addressed.
Wandsworth Prison's Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) certainly expected security to be improved. The IMB is made up of local residents who carry out regular checks on the jail and report their observations and concerns to ministers. After the 2019 escape, new CCTV and perimeter intruder detection systems were ordered. You'd have thought it would be a priority; after all, if there's one thing that jails have got to get right it's ensuring that prisoners don't escape.
But in a report covering the year 2021-22 the IMB said there was "little evidence" of the work. "Although the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) authorised funding for an upgrade to the establishment’s important CCTV and PIDs systems over two years ago, work on these essential systems did not start until November and little has been done since," said the report, which was published in September 2022. "The completion dates for these projects have now been pushed back to 2025,” it added.
I asked the MoJ why, according to the IMB, it had taken until November 2021 for the security enhancement work to begin - two years and nine months after the prison break-out. I wanted to find out why so little had been done by September 2022 and the reason for the delay in completing the project. The answers are far from convincing.
The MoJ said that CCTV upgrade work had started even later than the IMB had claimed - in August 2022, over three years after the prison escape. The next line in its response sounded like an excuse for inaction, and not a very good one.
It said the work was delayed in 2020 and 2021 "because the pandemic prevented on-site surveys".
Did the pandemic really prevent preparatory work on vital security upgrades for a jail that holds 1,500 prisoners? Really? I recall that lots of construction work carried on after Covid struck even if there were interruptions along the way. Surely, security improvements at a jail where a prisoner had recently escaped - a rare event in the UK - would have been first on the list.
I frankly do not think that "the pandemic prevented on-site surveys" is a credible explanation. Someone, somewhere took a decision to delay this work or at the very least not push for it to start - and it's important to know why that happened.
The MoJ points out that 65 per cent of the planned perimeter and CCTV work at Wandsworth is now finished and will conclude in 2025. That's encouraging - but it should have been done far earlier.
The prison clearly did not learn other fundamental lessons from the 2019 escape and I hope that Keith Bristow, who's leading the independent investigation into what happened, discovers why not. The first director-general of the National Crime Agency is an experienced and impressive operator who will tell it how it is and won't allow anyone to pull the wool over his eyes.
Bristow's terms of reference include examining staffing levels, security protocols and vehicle searching at Wandsworth, as well as looking at the categorisation of Khalife, risk assessments, decisions about his job in the kitchens and how the 21 year old accessed materials that "might have facilitated the escape".
There is no mention of reviewing measures taken since the 2019 escape, but I'm sure Bristow will explore whatever areas he thinks are necessary. Let's hope his report, or the findings at the very least, are published - otherwise there will be a suspicion that the MoJ is trying to cover up its own failings.