THE governor of Wealstun Prison has defended figures showing more than 700 prisoners have absconded in the past ten years.
The figures, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act last month, show hundreds of Category D prisoners have absconded from the open prison at Thorp Arch.
But governor Amy Rice has rejected the suggestion this is an indictment of the system and argues it is an inevitable result of the way open jails work.
Ms Rice said: “An escape is what people commonly think of, which is 'breaking out' or leaving lawful custody by breaching some sort of physical barrier. These are people who are in conditions which make it difficult for them to get out.
“That isn’t at all what we’re talking about here.”
Wealstun is unique in Britain in having an open and closed prison beside each other. The last escape from the higher security closed prison was in August 2001 and the prisoner involved was re-arrested by police a few weeks later.
Ms Rice continued: “Absconding is where a prisoner leaves but doesn’t breach any physical security. They can walk out at any time due to the layout of the prison.
“You find that many people who do abscond hand themselves in.”
Wealstun’s open prison wing has room for 380 and acts as a halfway house between custody and release.
Ms Rice said: “For long term prisoners, who have been in 20 years, you think about going to sleep in the 1980s and waking up in 2007, and that’s what it’s like.
“This system allows them to test what they would be like, but with a safety net.”
Open prisoners often work in the community, at charity shops or on work placements.
Ms Rice stressed prisoners were heavily assessed before being considered for an open prison place.
“Some people need to be in custody for a very long time,” she said. “The key thing is finding out the ones who don’t and making sure that they don’t become more dangerous, perhaps because of what they have lost.
“You will probably never have an open prison that doesn’t have an abscond, and this is where the risk assessment comes in.
“It’s about putting things in place so when they do get out they have a life which doesn’t necessitate crime.
“It is probably the best part of the prison system for being able to do that, which in the end, is what protects the public.”