Families worry over 'holiday camp' jail

FRUSTRATED families living near a Suffolk jail have branded it a "holiday camp" after it was revealed the number of prisoners absconding had more than doubled in 12 months.

By Danielle Nuttall

FRUSTRATED families living near a Suffolk jail have branded it a "holiday camp" after it was revealed the number of prisoners absconding had more than doubled in 12 months.

Figures from the Home Office show a total of 36 prisoners have absconded from the open unit of Hollesley Bay Prison, near Woodbridge, since April 2003 compared to 14 in 2002-03.

Four inmates absconded from the prison during a 48-hour period last weekend, one of whom was later caught by police, bringing the total number of absconds to 81 in the past five years.

Villagers yesterday spoke of their anger at the increase in absconds and demanded tighter controls to ensure prisoners selected for the open unit were at no risk of re-offending.

Two worried families from the village told the EADT yesterday of having had their cars stolen and dumped by prisoners on the run from the jail.

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Colin Hathway, 48, from Hollesley, had his work van stolen and set alight last Easter by an inmate who had absconded from the prison.

His wife Tracey, 39, who works for Suffolk Coastal District Council, said: "It was just taken off the road and burnt between where we live and the prison."

She claimed: "They can come and go as they please it's like a holiday camp. To me they should be under lock and key.

"There have been so many prisoners absconding. We are completely fed up with the whole thing.

"One day something is going to happen and a prisoner is going to abscond and hold somebody hostage.

"I am not an expert on these things but it seems to me there is something not quite right there and something definitely needs to be done."

The couple, who have a four-year-old son, have sent letters to the prison and the Home Office about the levels of inmates absconding.

"It was frustrating so I just gave up in the end. It's more like a weekly occurrence," said Mrs Hathway.

Jan Parry, a solicitor who lives in the village, said the family's Volvo estate had also been stolen and dumped in Norfolk a year ago by a prisoner on the run from the jail.

"Why are they desperate to go off unless they are re-offenders who should not be there in the first place?" she asked.

"My question to the prison is how are they selecting these prisoners? If they are young men who just want to go home then that's one thing, but committing offences on the way, are they not at the right rehabilitation stage to be in that place?

"We have to have faith in the system and accept they are choosing people sensibly but this doesn't seem to have happened in this case. It's quite frightening."

Mrs Parry has also written to the prison to urge an investigation into the problem.

"I would be interested to see why this is there such a high level of absconds. We cannot be blasé," she added.

A spokesman for the Prison Service said 964 prisoners were at Hollesley between April 2003 and January 2004, and added the number of those who had absconded represented a small proportion of the total population.

"Every prisoner who is sent to an open estate goes through an absolutely vigorous risk assessment that's very much part of the procedure," he said.

"Obviously the function of an open prison is to prepare reintegration back into society and smooth the transition so it's less of a shock to the system.

"Clearly, there is an element of trust between the prison and prisoners and unfortunately some prisoners do and always will breach that trust.

"Clearly, when people abscond from prisons we take it very seriously. At the same time, we try to urge people to see it in context of the very large number of people who go successfully through the open prison."

Earlier this week Suffolk Coastal MP John Gummer insisted a probe was needed at the jail after four prisoners absconded over the Easter Weekend.

Two prisoners, Michael Morris and Albie Steer, went missing from Hollesley Bay at about 8.20am on Sunday.

Both are considered to be violent and should not be approached - Morris, 24, is serving time for grievous bodily harm, while Steer, 22, is in prison for drugs offences.

Another prisoner, Stuart Thompson, went missing at 12.30pm on Saturday. He was serving six years for burglary.

Police captured a fourth prisoner, who absconded at 1pm on Sunday, after a chase across a field.

The East Anglian Daily Times wrote to Home Secretary David Blunkett in September 2002 asking questions about how prisoners were assessed before being sent to an open unit, and what the authorities were doing about the prison's record for absconders.

Former Home Office Minister for Prisons and Probation Hilary Benn replied to the letter and confirmed that regulations had been tightened.

Data for a table:

Number of prisoners absconding (by financial year)

1998-99 1999-00 2000-01 2001-02 2002-03 2003-04 In total over five years

24 11 24 8 14 36 81

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