Doors closed on the scandal of open prisons

Share this article

THE number of prisoners allowed into Scotland's two open jails has been slashed by nearly a third following widespread anger over violent criminals going on the run.

Figures obtained by The Scotsman lay bare serious deficiencies in the running of Castle Huntly and Noranside, which critics say have put the public at risk.

The number of inmates has fallen from a daily average of 487 in 2007-8, to 350 since the scandal of an inmate who last year raped a teenager after absconding from Castle Huntly.

A prison source confirmed the fall was largely due to a toughening of procedures surrounding the transfer of inmates to the jails in the wake of the Robert Foye case and growing anger over the number of prisoners who abscond – averaging about one a week.

Foye was halfway through a ten-year sentence for attempting to murder a policeman in 2002 when he absconded from the jail, near Dundee, and raped the 16-year-old. He had been sent to the open prison despite being classed as at high risk of reoffending and having gone on the run from the jail before.

The case led to accusations that the prisons, which allow inmates access to the outside, were being run as "holiday camps" and as a pressure valve for overcrowded jails.

A court yesterday heard that sources at Castle Huntly believed Foye, 28, had been plotting from inside the jail to carry out a sex attack, had prepared a "rape kit" to subdue his victim and had committed a sex attack when he was 15 years old – claims that his defence deny.

Opposition politicians last night welcomed the fall in the number of inmates at Castle Huntly and Noranside, and insisted it showed that mismanagement of the open prisons had been putting the public at risk.

Bill Aitken MSP, the Conservatives' justice spokesman, said: "It is quite apparent from these figures that there were a great number of people in the open estate who should have been in a conventional prison.

"Against this background, it is not surprising that there have been problems with abscondings, of which Robert Foye is the worst example. Hopefully a lesson has been learned.

"The country-club atmosphere which has seemed to prevail in the open estate may now be changing to some extent."

His Labour counterpart, Pauline McNeill MSP, said the figures showed the public had been put at risk by sloppy procedures in the open prisons.

"This is a clear sign that the previous policy was far too lax. Hopefully, the open prisons are now returning to their original purpose – testing and preparing long-term prisoners for release.

"The decline in numbers of the open estate does suggest the old practices were putting the public's safety at risk. If there has been a change of heart – and these figures suggest there has – then it would appear the prison service is doing the right thing."

Castle Huntly and Noranside, in Angus, have been at the centre of controversy since Foye raped the teenage girl after absconding.

In March, a report by the Scottish Prison Service identified a list of weaknesses in the way prisoners were being transferred to the open prisons. It highlighted shortcomings in the way inmates were assessed for the risk they would pose to the public before being moved from a "closed" prison, and once they had arrived in an open jail.

Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary, also ordered the prison service to adopt a presumption against sending anyone to open prisons who has previously absconded, and to install a governor for each of the two jails rather than having one in charge of both.

Last month the Scottish Prison Commission weighed in, attacking the way the prison service was using the open estate. The commission, led by the former First Minister, Henry McLeish, said the open jails' role had become "distorted" by prison overcrowding – despite insistences from Mr MacAskill that the jails were not being used to relieve overstretched jails.

The commission's recommendations, which are being considered by ministers, say the open prisons should be used as a means of preparing murderers, rapists and other long-term prisoners, for release.

Clive Fairweather, Scotland's former chief inspector of prisons, echoed that call. "Short-term prisoners should never be sent to the open estate," he said. "They have nothing to lose, as they are automatically released halfway through their sentence. Sending short-term prisoners to open prisons was introduced to ease overcrowding, which is not what they are for."

Other than Foye, a string of prisoners have absconded from the open estate in recent months. They include killer John Bowden and former soldier Simon Lister, jailed for assaults and robberies on pensioners.

A prison service spokesman said it was toughening the rules on who was sent to an open jail.

He said: "We have implemented a number of recommendations coming out from our own review as well as measures from the cabinet secretary, such as providing a governor for each prison and a presumption against a return to the open estate for absconders.

"It is too early to say what impact these specific measures have had."

A prison source confirmed the fall in the number of inmates at Castle Huntly and Noranside was largely as a result of closer vetting of prisoners deemed eligible for transfer to the open jails following the Foye scandal.

Among the measures understood to be stemming the flow of prisoners to the open estate are subjecting every short-term inmate to the same standard of risk assessment as long-termers.

Until recently, inmates sentenced to less than four years were subject to less thorough checks when they were considered for transfer to an open prison. They were also allowed leave without proper checks on where they would stay and who they would be mixing with.

Transfers are now signed off by a senior manager, while risk assessments on prisoners are updated every week as opposed to the previous ad hoc approach.

Facilities used to get inmates ready for life outside jail

What are open prisons?

Open prisons have a more relaxed security regime – they have no walls around the perimeter – and are generally used to prepare inmates for release. There are two in Scotland – Castle Huntly near Dundee and Noranside in Forfar. Together, they can accommodate more than 500 prisoners.

How do they prepare inmates for release?

By offering inmates a degree of freedom, they give prison staff and the parole board an insight into how an inmate will react when their sentence is up and they are released into the community.

Prisoners are given a taste of normal life through the less rigid security regime, and the opportunity to take home leave and attend work placements outside jail.

Which inmates are eligible for transfer to an open prison?

The vast majority of prisoners allowed into Castle Huntly and Noranside are long-term inmates – ie, those sentenced to more than four years. Prisoners are also risk-assessed before being transferred. This is to ensure only low-risk inmates are moved to the open jails.

How long can open-jail inmates spend at home?

The maximum period of home leave is seven days. This was increased from three days in 2006.

Can prisoners be sent straight to an open jail?

No. In Scotland, criminals given a jail sentence must "do time" in a normal (closed] prison.

This is different to England, where prisoners can go straight to an open – Category D – facility.

What happens to prisoners who abscond?

They are automatically sent back to a closed prison and are unlikely to be readmitted. They can also receive an additional jail sentence of up to 12 months.

A rogues' gallery of absconders

IT EMERGED last month that three prisoners – John Cartledge , Dennis Smyth and Simon Lister – had gone on the run from Castle Huntly prison. All three were recaptured within days.

Cartledge, 41, was jailed for eight years in May 2004 after pleading guilty to assault to severe injury, permanent disfigurement and to the danger of life.

Smyth, 38, a convicted housebreaker, was also granted home leave but failed to return. Simon Lister, a 28-year-old inmate at the open prison in Noranside, Angus, also absconded.

Lister, right, a former soldier from Penicuik, was given a seven-year jail term at the High Court in Edinburgh in 2004 after being convicted of a series of assaults and robberies on pensioners.

Last November, a sheriff ruled that the killing of a woman by a prisoner on unsupervised leave from Castle Huntly could have been avoided. Catherine Thomson, 26, was stabbed in the neck by John Campbell, her boyfriend's brother.

Campbell, right, was arrested after the killing, but later plunged to his death from an upper gallery at Barlinnie prison in an apparent suicide.

The previous day, another sheriff launched an attack on the prison service after discovering that a violent criminal was moved to an open prison just a month after being jailed.

Career criminal Robert Colquhoun was transferred to Castle Huntly prison 35 days after being jailed for 28 months. Within a few weeks of being moved to the jail, Colquhoun had gone on the run.

James Gibson, 32, right, also admitted absconding from the jail while serving eight years for drug-dealing. He fled in August and remained on the run for ten weeks.

Gibson – who was jailed for eight years at the High Court in Edinburgh in 2005 – simply stayed at home for more than two months prior to his re-arrest.

Prisoner 'prepared rape kit' for attack on 16-year-old girl

ROBERT Foye, who raped a teenage girl after being allowed to leave an open prison to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, had plotted to commit a sex attack and even prepared a "rape kit", a court yesterday heard.

Foye, 28, had been allowed out of Castle Huntly when he went on the run and attacked the 16-year-old girl. He was yesterday due to be sentenced for the crime.

The High Court in Edinburgh heard claims that – according to insider information from the prison near Dundee – Foye had planned the sex attack for some time, prepared a "rape kit" to help subdue his victim and had been guilty of a previous sex attack committed when he was 15.

All the claims were denied by defence QC Paul McBride, who said it would be wrong to sentence Foye on the basis of inaccurate information. The lawyer has two weeks to prepare a written challenge to the disputed risk assessment by a psychologist, Dr Mark Ramm, before the court decides the next move.

The judge, Lady Smith, is considering a form of life sentence that will keep Foye behind bars until he is thought to pose no further risk to the public and will keep him under strict supervision after his release.

Only a handful of such "orders for lifelong restriction" have been issued since the courts were given such powers in June 2006.

Foye – who is already serving a ten-year sentence for the attempted murder of a policeman – came to court on 23 January to plead guilty to rape. During that hearing, Lady Smith was told two police forces were trying to track him down last August. Six days after he was reported missing, Foye attacked the girl in Cumbernauld.

The advocate depute, Jennifer Bain, told how Foye asked his victim the time, then seized her and forced her into woods.

The 52-page risk assessment is a legal requirement before Lady Smith can impose an order for lifelong restriction.

Yesterday, Mr McBride said Dr Ramm based key conclusions on wrong information and he wished to challenge the findings. "That will affect the time in custody and future management in the community," he said.

Foye was branded "a sexual deviant from the age of 15 who carefully pre-planned a rape".

However, Mr McBride said there had been no suggestion in the account given by Ms Bain, or in the charge, that any weapons had been used or that Foye had been searching for a victim. And, in spite of his lengthy record, he had no previous convictions for sex offences.

The claim the sex attack had been planned came from "unattributable prison intelligence", said Mr McBride.

Although Foye is due back in court in two weeks, another date will have to be set then for Lady Smith to pronounce sentence.

Foye was sent to Castle Huntly after serving more than five years of a ten-year sentence imposed in 2002 for driving at a detective. The officer was left clinging to the car and dragged for 50 yards, suffering serious head injuries.

Row centres on running, not value, of 'vital' Scots institutions

DESPITE the angry protestations every time a prisoner goes Awol from Castle Huntly or Noranside, there remains a consensus over the future of Scotland's open jails – that they should stay.

Once news of an escape from one of the prisons emerges, a press release from opposition political parties condemning the way the jails are run is quick to follow.

But every party agrees that open prisons, in principle, have an important role to play in the criminal justice system.

However, as Clive Fairweather, the former prisons watchdog, put it yesterday: "I am convinced that without (open prisons], there will be more victims of crime.

"They are a vital means of testing and preparing prisoners for release into the community."

It is how these prisons are run in the future that is very much up for debate.

The Scottish Prisons Commission wants the open prisons never to be used as a pressure valve to ease overcrowding in other jails.

The Scottish Government insist this is not the case. However, two policies introduced for that very purpose – increasing home leave to seven days, and allowing short-term prisoners in – remain in place.

In its report, published last month, the commission argues that short-term prisoners should not be sent to open estate.

It also states that only by reducing the overall number of prisoners in Scotland will the open prisons be properly run.

This will allow resources at the open estate to be concentrated on rehabilitating prisoners rather than a place to put people because other jails have no space for them.

"The context of the (Robert] Foye case was that the prison service resources were stretched to the limit by overcrowding," the report states.

The Conservatives' answer is to build more prisons. This would relieve overcrowding and allow open prisons to do the job that they were designed for.

Michael Howie

Back to the top of the page