Absconding prisoner policy unlawful

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Published: Wednesday 1st April 2015 by The News Editor

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Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s policy of excluding prisoners from being transferred from closed prisons to more lenient open prison conditions if they have a history of absconding has been declared unlawful by the High Court.

The policy was introduced following high-profile media reports last year of prisoners with a history of violence absconding while on release on temporary licence (ROTL) from open prison.

Among them was Michael Wheatley, a fugitive armed robber nicknamed the Skull Cracker.

Mr Grayling publicly announced last May that the Government was “tearing up the system as it exists at the moment” and introduced his absconder policy.

But two senior judges at London’s High Court have ruled that excluding transfers – save in exceptional circumstances – for prisoners “with a history of abscond, escape or serious ROTL failure” is inconsistent with his own directions to the Parole Board.

The long-standing directions state that “a phased release” from closed to open prison is necessary for most inmates serving indeterminate sentences “in order to test the prisoner’s readiness for release into the community”.

Lord Justice Bean, sitting with Mr Justice Mitting, gave the Justice Secretary permission to appeal against the court’s ruling.

The Prisoners’ Advice Service, a charity offering free legal advice and support to adult prisoners, described the absconder policy as a “knee jerk reaction” by Mr Grayling.

The charity said in a statement: “The Secretary of State’s contention that he is entitled to ignore and contradict his own policy guidance demonstrates either his ignorance or flagrant disregard for basic legal principles of consistency and transparency in public decision making.

“The so called ‘absconder policy’ was introduced as a knee jerk reaction to negative press reports without adequate consideration for either existing policies, or its impact on the prisoners whose progression to open conditions was abruptly prevented.”

The policy was introduced after press reports early last year of prisoners absconding.

High in the headlines was the case of Michael Wheatley, a fugitive armed robber who was nicknamed the Skull Cracker.

Wheatley, who had been given 13 life sentences but was eligible for release after eight years, had been on the run after leaving Standford Hill open prison in Kent on day release and failing to return.

He was arrested alongside another man in Tower Hamlets, east London, after an armed robbery at a Chelsea Building Society branch in Sunbury-on-Thames, Surrey.

The Ministry of Justice announced there would be an appeal.

A spokesman said: “The fundamental principles of the policy are not unlawful.

“The court found there was inconsistency with the implementation.

“Our position remains that temporary release can be an important part of rehabilitating offenders but not at the cost of public protection.

“We are appealing this decision.”

Published: Wednesday 1st April 2015 by The News Editor

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