ON FRIDAY John Major promised a "major blitz on drugs in prisons". "We must choke off the supply of drugs to prisons," he told the Social Market Foundation. Prison should reform people, not see them "sucked into a sub-culture of drugs".
As he was talking, five senior IRA terrorists in Whitemoor jail, Cambridgeshire, and an armed robber, were preparing to demonstrate that the Home Office had not only failed to stop drugs getting into prisons but could not even "choke off" the supply of guns.
One guard was shot and injured and others ignored the shots that went by them as they fought to recapture the fugitives. It was only because of what Derek Lewis, Director General of the Prison Service, described as the unarmed officers' "courage, commitment and professionalism" in tackling the fugitives that the Government was not faced with a prison breakout comparable to the flight of the Soviet spy George Blake in 1966 and the IRA suspects Nessan Quinlivan and Pearse McAuley in 1991.
But, after the initial relief at the six men's capture, hard questions remained. The Home Office inquiry will examine how at least two guns and what police described as "a device" got inside the maximum-security prison and whether lax standards contributed to the escape of six men over the wall of a jail which has a short, and controversial, history.
Whitemoor, in the Cambridgeshire fens, near March, was meant to be a model prison when it was opened by Norma Major in September 1991. Half the accommodation was given over to sex criminals, such as the mass killer Dennis Nilsen, who needed to be segregated for their own protection. The other two wings were to hold IRA terrorists, armed robbers, drug dealers and other serious "conventional" prisoners. It was to be a "national resource" for officials dealing with prisoners sentenced to life.
But, from the start, Whitemoor was beset with difficulties. The jail cost pounds 52m to build - almost three times the original estimate of pounds 18.5m. Mrs Major was greeted with sit- down demonstrations against conditions in the jail by inmates when she arrived. Soon prisoners' worries about their food and work were replaced by growing fears among the staff that they could not manage the inmates.
Lynne Bowles, a senior manager in the jail, said in 1993 that criminals who were using violence and threats against the authorities to get their own way were still being "pampered" with privileges. Among the perks was permission for prisoners to cook their own meals with food ordered from local supermarkets.
Then, in October last year, Leslie Bailey, a paedophile who had been part of a group that abused and killed three boys, was found strangled in his cell. At Christmas, prisoners drunk on illicit cell-brewed "hooch" smashed windows and fittings, ripped doors off their hinges and started small fires in five hours of vandalism at the jail.
In its annual report, the prison's Board of Visitors warned that the jail authorities were in danger of losing control of the 500 inmates. To make things worse, Judge Stephen Tumim's Prison Inspectorate criticised low staffing levels and said the Home Office had allowed the jail to become a dumping ground for difficult inmates. There were too many disruptive prisoners "determined to challenge the system" in one place, it said.
Above all, the jail lacked "coherence". Sex offenders could not mix with "ordinary" prisoners because they would be beaten up. But the planners had designed a prison "without apparent regard" for the physical difficulties of keeping the two groups apart.
It was in this confused prison, with the managers seemingly frightened of inmates, that the escape was planned.
The IRA men - who included Gilbert McNamee, who was linked to the 1982 Hyde Park explosion which killed four army bandsmen, and Peter Sherry, one of the Brighton bombers - were held in a segregated, secure unit. …