Record 71 prisoners freed by mistake as violence in `serious concern` jails hits new high

A record number of offenders and suspects have been released from prison in error or escaped from custody as violence in jails surged to a new high, official figures reveal.

Jul 27, 2017

A record number of offenders and suspects have been released from prison in error or escaped from custody as violence in jails surged to a new high, official figures reveal. Seventy-one were mistakenly freed in 2016/17 – a rise of seven on the previous year and the highest number since current records began in 2006. It means offenders and those on remand were let out in error at a rate of more than one a week. Another 15 prisoners escaped from custody – four from prisons, eight from “contractor escort”, and three from National Offender Management Service escort, but none involving the most dangerous category of prisoner. A raft of statistics released on Thursday (July 27) by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for the financial year 2016/17 also revealed another jump in assaults across the prisons estate in England and Wales. The 26,643 assaults in the year to March, including a record 7,159 attacks on staff – equivalent to nearly 20 every day – are the latest indicator to lay bare the scale of the safety crisis in the prison system. Overall, the performance of prisons appears to have worsened, with the MoJ naming ten in England and Wales – up from six last year – as causing “serious concern”. They are Bedford, Birmingham, Bristol, Brixton, Guys Marsh, Hindley, Liverpool, Pentonville, Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs. A further 40 prisons have been ranked as causing concern, while nine have been graded exceptional. The disclosure on mistaken releases sparked criticism from campaigners and politicians who blamed underfunding, overcrowding and staff shortages. And Justice Secretary David Lidington, a month into his new post, said the figures “reinforce how crucial it is that we make progress as quickly as possible” on improving safety and security in prisons. Fifty-eight of the erroneous releases occurred from prison establishments, while 13 happened during escort or at courts. Prisoners released in error are not considered to be “unlawfully at large”, according to an MoJ report setting out the figures. It says: “They are not culpable and may be unaware that they have not completed their sentence or have outstanding warrants. Depending on the circumstances of the case, they may not be actively pursued for return to custody.” Examples of mistakes behind erroneous releases include misplaced warrants for imprisonment or remand, recall notices not being acted on, sentence miscalculations or discharging the wrong person on escort. Earlier in July, an inmate who was released from prison just months into a nine-year sentence due to a “clerical error” was arrested after weeks on the run. Ralston Dodd was jailed after a stabbing attack but was sent home early because his prison term had been recorded incorrectly. The Ministry of Justice said then that it was an “extremely rare” error. In its latest findings, the MoJ said serious assaults on staff had trebled since 2013, reaching 805, while assaults in female prisons reached 1,023, the highest for at least nine years. Liberal Democrat chief whip Alistair Carmichael said: “It is beyond belief that 71 potentially dangerous prisoners have been released by mistake.” Rachel Almeida, of the charity Victim Support, said: “Many victims will be shocked by these figures, especially if it involves perpetrators of serious crimes.” There were a total of 316 deaths in prison custody in the 12 months to June, down from 322 in the previous year, including two murders, 189 deaths due to natural causes and 25 that have not yet been classified. Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, warned this month that staffing levels in many establishments were too low to maintain order and said many inmates were kept in “squalid, dirty and disgraceful” conditions. Ministers have launched a recruitment drive to add 2,500 frontline officers and put in place new measures to tackle the availability of mobile phones and drugs in jails.

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