Hollesley Bay: Ministry of Justice refuses to name prisoners on the run

MINISTRY of Justice officials have refused to reveal the identity of at least seven prisoners on the run from a Suffolk jail – some of whom went missing more than five years ago – for fears the fugitives may “go into hiding”.

The Government department also justified not releasing the information about absconders at large from Hollesley Bay open prison because it would breach the criminals’ right to privacy.

Following a Freedom of Information inquest by the EADT, officials also refused to reveal the total number of absconders from the prison, near Woodbridge, in 2009-10 and so far in 2010-11 because it wants to publish the information in its own time.

It follows a similar response to an EADT request in July 2009, after which then Suffolk Coastal MP John Gummer – who now has the title Lord Deben – successfully lobbied Home Secretary Jack Straw to release fugitives’ names and photographs – a breakthrough which was hailed as “a victory for common sense”.

Last night, Lord Deben criticised the MoJ for reverting to its previous position and called the department’s response “unacceptable”.

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Between 1995-96 and 2008-9, 261 inmates have absconded from the open prison – of which seven have not been captured by police.

But the MoJ said it would not release their names, descriptions or pictures because it would breach the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the principles of the Data Protection Act – in particular the right to privacy.

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The department’s response – written by Sharanjit Nagra of the National Offender Management Service – reads: “I am afraid the details of the absconders you request... are exempt under section 40 of the FOIA, disclosure of personal data to a third party.”

It adds that giving out the information could also breach the FOIA “in that it may, in some instances, prejudice the apprehension or prosecution of offenders”.

It continues: “Disclosure may cause named offenders to go into hiding and therefore cause interference to ongoing police investigations.

“Disclosure of the information may lead to attacks on those who are mistaken for those offenders whose details are published”.

Last night, Lord Deben hit out at the Government’s response. “These prisoners do not have the same rights as other people – they are on the run,” he said.

“Of course we should know who they are and be able to help the police.

“Anyone would understand if there was a particular case where it would help not to give information for one reason or another – but it can’t be so for all seven. How do we keep these people up to the mark? It’s not an acceptable position.”

Responding to the request, the MoJ provided figures for the number of absconders from the prison between 1995-6 and 2008-9 – which are already publicly available – but said it would not release the information for 2009-10 and so far in 2010-11.

Its reasoning was that the department is preparing to release the information in due course as a “conventiently planned and managed activity” and was entitled to choose when to publish.

The EADT has run publicity appeals – requested by the MoJ and Suffolk police – to find at least eight offenders in that period, all of whom have been recaptured.

IN July 2009, Home Secretary Jack Straw intervened after the Ministry of Justice refused an East Anglian Daily Times request to name absconders at large from Hollesley Bay.

Civil servants were forced into a u-turn after pressure from the EADT and the then Suffolk Coastal MP John Gummer.

Originally the ministry turned down the request – for details of any fugitives from the open prison between January 1, 2007 and March 31, 2009 – citing prisoners’ rights under the Data Protection Act.

It also asserted that identification could hinder any police operation to recapture absconders who were still at large.

However, an incensed Mr Gummer took the matter up with Justice Secretary Jack Straw who agreed to release the information immediately.

Mr Gummer said at the time: “We have made the government give way. It’s a victory for common sense.”

Since 1995-6 to the end of 2008-9, 261 prisoners absconded. The most in a year was 36 in 2003-4. The problem at the Category C jailed has lessened in recent years, with 19 inmates going on the run in 2007-8 and 17 in 2009-10.

Of those who have not been recaptured, two fled the jail in 2004-5, two disappeared in 2005-6 and three in 2007-8.

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