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Today’s big question
‘Gob-smacking’ events raise urgent questions about state of UK’s criminal justice system
Airports and ferry terminals have been put on high alert as police fear a terror suspect who escaped from a south London prison on Wednesday may attempt to flee the country.
Justice Secretary Alex Chalk has called for an investigation into what the BBC’s Chris Mason calls the “jaw-dropping” circumstances surrounding Daniel Abed Khalife’s escape from HM Prison Wandsworth.
The 21-year-old former soldier is believed to have been preparing breakfast for inmates in the prison kitchen when he made a break for it by clinging to the bottom of a delivery truck as it drove out of the jail’s grounds.
“Ministry of Justice officials were left red faced,” said The Telegraph, and police have issued an urgent public appeal for information about Khalife’s whereabouts.
What did the papers say?An “astonishing sequence of events” unfolded at Wandsworth prison, said Mason. Prison staff realised that Khalife was missing at around 7am, a source told The Times, and “nearly an hour” passed while staff searched the jail before police were informed.
The suspected criminal is thought to have been wearing his chef’s uniform of a white T-shirt and red and white checked trousers when he made the escape. It’s “as gobsmacking as it is absurd”, said Mason.
Khalife had been charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act and “perpetrating a bomb hoax”, said The Telegraph, to which he pleaded not guilty in January. He was due to stand trial at Woolwich Crown Court in November.
It is “difficult to understand why someone facing those charges is at Wandsworth in the first place”, former prison governor Ian Acheson told The Times. A terrorism suspect should have been held in a category A prison like Belmarsh in southeast London, he said, rather than a lower security category B facility like Wandsworth. “And even then, why he’s in the kitchen, which is a security risk immediately because it involves handling knives,” he added.
It was only a matter of time before a prisoner escaped from Wandsworth, said David Shipley, a film producer who was imprisoned there in 2020, writing in The Spectator. The jail is “understaffed, poorly managed and often so badly organised that it loses track of prisoners for extended periods of time”.
Working in the kitchen is a “desirable job” for inmates, he continued, and it makes “escape potentially easier”. With just “one or two officers” on guard in this “understaffed” and “busy environment”, just “a moment’s inattention may be enough for a prisoner to escape”.
What next?Chalk made an urgent call to the prison’s governor, Katie Price, yesterday and said he has been regularly updated about the situation since. The jail is in lockdown and Price now faces “the most awkward and excruciating of questions about how on earth this was able to happen”, said Mason.
As well as the concerns about Khalife’s role in the prison kitchen, Wandsworth is “supposed” to use a mirror to check beneath vehicles before they leave the facility’s grounds, said Shipley. If this is how he escaped, then “the prison will have to account for this failure too”.
A report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in October 2021 found the south London prison to be a “crumbling, overcrowded, vermin-infested” facility that needed “considerable ongoing support” in recruiting and retaining staff. An inspection last year found the jail remained “one of the most overcrowded” in the country, with “very poor” living conditions.
Still, Wandsworth is not “an unusual case”, said Shipley. “As the staffing crisis in our prison system worsens” there will be more “opportunities” for prisoners to evade guards – and “some will take them”.
“Whether or not a prison break-out can really be blamed on the government, it’s ministers who’ll get the flak,” said Sky News’s chief political correspondent Jon Craig. “Unless he’s recaptured quickly”, Khalife’s escape “could trigger another political crisis for Rishi Sunak” – and “Labour is already on the attack”.
Shadow Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood issued a “hard-hitting response” to the situation, said Craig. She called on the Conservatives to “urgently explain how they can’t do the basic job of keeping potentially dangerous criminals locked up” and accused Sunak’s “zombie government” of not having a “grip on the criminal justice system”.
To “save” the justice secretary and the government “further embarrassment, Mr Chalk will hope that one of his regular updates from the governor brings news that Khalife has been recaptured”, Craig said.
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