Nick Herbert: "public at risk" as violent prisoners abscond

Arundel & South Downs MP Nick Herbert appeared on the BBC’s Panorama programme on Monday evening (5 May) to highlight the risk posed by violent offenders who are walking out of open jails.


Open prisons, designed to hold low-risk prisoners, are coming under increasing pressure to accept high-risk offenders as a way of easing the overcrowding crisis in local jails.

One of the cases featured in the BBC documentary was that of Richard MacDonald who walked out of Ford Open Prison in 2006, just three years into an eight year sentence for armed robbery. 

MacDonald carried out a further armed robbery in South-East London while on the run.  Police officers were amazed to see him in CCTV footage of the robbery because they thought he was still in jail.

According to Panorama, MacDonald was transferred to Ford Open Prison despite a record of two previous escapes from separate jails.  He escaped from The Mount Prison in Hertfordshire in 1995 and absconded from Spring Hill Open Prison in Buckinghamshire just a few months before being transferred to Ford.

In October 2006, at a time when prisoners were absconding from Ford at a rate of two a week, a leaked memo from the Prison Governor, Fiona Radford, revealed that the Home Secretary had "accepted as inevitable" an increased number of absconds as a result of his decision to use open prisons to help ease overcrowding in the prison estate, and that "Ministers have apparently been briefed to this effect and are taking this risk".  The memo was leaked around the time of MacDonald's escape from Ford.

Nick Herbert, who is also Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, said: "I think the public would find it extraordinary that a violent criminal who had already escaped from an institution should be deemed suitable for transfer to an open prison."

Mr Herbert added: "It is unacceptable that these resettlement institutions are now coming under such pressure that we see the risk of absconds and therefore a risk to the public."



Notes for Editors

1. The BBC Panorama programme, ‘Prisons Unlocked', can be seen at

2. According to figures obtained from the Ministry of Justice (Hansard, 14 Mar 2008, Col 678W), there were 55 absconders from Ford Prison between January 2007 and February 2008. The offences for which they were convicted included affray (1), burglary (13), assault (1), murder (1), robbery (5), drugs (7), manslaughter (1), possession of an offensive weapon (1) and wounding (2).

3. The latest figures for the End of Custody Licence scheme confirm the highest number of prisoners released early so far, with 2,675 released in March 2008 alone, taking the total released since the scheme started to 23,716, including 4,487 violent offenders.

4. 47 prisoners were released early from Ford Prison in March 2008, taking the total released since the scheme started to 375. 19 were released early from Lewes Prison in March 2008, taking the cumulative total to 154.

5. On 9 May 2008, the prison population was 82,323.

Alexander Black