Violent robber missing from prison

Labour branded the statistics evidence of a "growing crisis" in England's prisons

Wayne Whitley was serving a life sentence for a series of violent armed robberies

Michael Wheatley, dubbed the Skullcracker, absconded from HMP Standford Hill

First published in National News © by

A violent armed robber has absconded from open prison in another blow for the Government on a day of damning revelations for the Prison Service.

Wayne Whitley, 40, who was serving a life sentence for a series of violent armed robberies, went missing from HMP Kirkham 12 days ago, but his absence has only just been revealed by Greater Manchester Police.

His disappearance comes as a raft of bleak figures published by the Ministry of Justice revealed a leap in the number of on-the-run inmates in the last year, as well as a n increase in deaths in custody, a rise in the number of jails considered to be "of concern" and a surge in assaults on prison staff.

Whitley, who has links to areas across Greater Manchester, is described as a black man of slim athletic build.

It is unknown what he was wearing when he left prison, a statement from Greater Manchester Police (GMP) said.

Detective inspector Robert Cousen, from GMP's Serious Crime Division, said: "Whitley escaped from lawful custody on July 19 and we are making every effort to find him.

"He is not to be approached by members of the public, but if anyone sees him or knows of his whereabouts, please contact GMP on 101 immediately.

"If you would prefer to pass on information anonymously, then you can do this by calling Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

"I would also urge Whitley to hand himself in at his nearest police station and to remind people that if anyone is found to be assisting or harbouring Whitley, they too will face being arrested and a possible prison sentence of their own."

Whitley is the third prisoner to abscond from HMP Kirkham this month.

Philip Stephenson, 33, and Gareth Robinson, 24, left the Category D facility earlier in July.

Stephenson was serving a sentence for firearms offences while Robinson was in prison for burglary, Greater Manchester Police said at the time.

Elsewhere, it emerged that a prison officer had part of his ear bitten off by an inmate during an attack at Nottingham Prison.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said the service had experienced a "significant period of change" and admitted it had been "a challenge".

Among the figures, the number of offending behaviour programmes completed in and out of custody, designed to reduce re-offending, including those targeted at sex offenders and drug abusers, has also fallen.

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: "The true scale of the growing crisis in the country's prisons is revealed by the Government's own data.

"Violence is up, deaths in custody are up and the number of prisoners going on the run is up.

"The Government is trying to hide the sheer scale of the failings in the Ministry of Justice from the public by trying to pretend there's not a problem, let alone a crisis.

"This is all evidence of the incompetence of David Cameron's Government.

"The evidence is piling up that the Government has caused a prison crisis. The courses, training and healthcare needed to make sure prisoners are reformed aren't happening.

"Staring at their cell walls for hours on end, surrounded by death and violence, will do nothing to stop offenders committing further crimes on their release."

More than 200 inmates escaped or absconded from prisons in England and Wales in the last year, according to the figures, suggesting prisoners went missing at a rate of around one every two days.

There were a total of 225 absconds, an increase of 21 compared with the previous year, which included 137 from open prisons, which have been the subject of controversy after a spate of criminals walked out.

The most high-profile of those was Michael Wheatley - known as the "Skullcracker" - who sparked a nationwide manhunt after absconding from HMP Standford Hill on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent.

Two male criminals fled jails in 2013/14 and another two escaped prisoner escorts, the figures show.

The report said the two escapes last year were from HMP Wandsworth in south-west London and HMP Kennet on Merseyside.

Ninety absconders who have disappeared from prisons in the last decade were still at large at the end of last month, while another 79 have not returned after being granted temporary release since 2004.

In other figures, one prison - HMP Brinsford, near Wolverhampton - received the worst performance rating "of serious concern" from the National Offender Management Service (Noms), while a further 27 were marked "of concern". This is a doubling of the number of prisons rated "of concern" in the space of 12 months.

The number of prisoners who died in custody jumped by nearly a quarter in the year to March to reach its highest level for almost a decade.

A total of 225 inmates died in jail in 2013/14, compared with 181 in the same period the previous year. This was the highest number since 2005.

Meanwhile the number of attacks on prison staff soared to its highest level for six years - up by more than a tenth to 3,363 in the 12 months to March - prompting suggestions that jails in England and Wales have become "places of extreme violence".

The figures showed that the number of attacks against staff has increased - the highest number since 2007.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "Prisons are becoming places of extreme violence as men are caged with nothing to do all day, and in some terrible cases they have become death traps."

Figures showed the number of offender behaviour programmes completed in custody fell between 2013/14 and 2012/13 from 7,339 to 6,515, while the number of programmes completed in the community dropped from 6,718 to 6,221.

Meanwhile, in 2013/14 around one in 13 (7.4%) of random drug tests of prisoners was positive. This was slightly up on the previous year, when the figure was 7%.

Some 1,155 prisoners deemed as "low risk" have worked outside of prison on temporary licences, earning a total of more than £3.6 million - an increase of almost £1 million compared with 2012/13.

The average earnings for each prisoner was around £770 a month, before an MoJ levy was taken which amounted to just over £1 million of the total payments.

The national crowding rate in prisons was 22.9% in 2013/14 - meaning nearly one in four prisoners is being held in a cell, cubicle or room where the number of occupants exceeds the "uncrowded" capacity.

Glyn Travis, of the Prison Officers' Association, claimed the prisons service is "in crisis".

He said: "The prison population is increasing and despite changes introduced by the Ministry of Justice we still believe that inappropriate prisoners are being sent to open conditions as the service tries to manage its available cellular accommodation."

Although the number of absconds has risen year on year, the total of 225 was the third lowest since the current method of counting was introduced in 2004.

The Justice Secretary said: "Over the last couple of years we have seen a major programme of reform across both prisons and probation - aimed at providing the best service to the public while lowering the cost to the taxpayer.

"In this current economic climate all public services are required to help ease the burden. We are not exempt from that and have reduced our overall budget by 24%, through sensible and well-considered reforms, commended by the National Audit Office.

"As with any significant period of change - coupled with prison population increases higher than expected - it has been a challenge. We are responding to and managing the additional pressures but prisons are still running safe and decent regimes."

Referring specifically to the figures on absconding prisoners, Mr Grayling said open prisons and temporary licence are "important tools in rehabilitating long-term offenders", but stressed they "will not be used at the expense of public safety".

He added that absconds have reached record lows under the coalition Government, while the eligibility for open prisons has been tightened.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "The tragic rise in the numbers of self-inflicted deaths in custody is the most vivid of the flashing warning signs of a prison service placed under unprecedented strain."

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