HMP Wandsworth had escape in 2019 almost identical to Daniel Khalife’s

Prison’s ex security chief says situation ‘incredibly embarrassing’ but ‘not surprising’ amid reports of ‘serious’ low staffing levels

Van entering the prison
Questions are being asked about whether protocols were followed for all vehicles entering or leaving the London prison Credit: Eddie Mulholland For The Telegraph

HMP Wandsworth suffered a virtually identical escape by a prisoner to that of Daniel Khalife four years ago when an inmate clung onto the underside of a van to abscond from the jail.

The offender had returned from court and was handed over to prison officers, but managed to escape in the same way the suspected terrorist did on Wednesday – by hiding under a van.

Like Khalife, officers responsible for checking the underside of the van failed to spot him with their mirrors as the vehicle was held in an “air lock” before leaving the jail. Police were alerted and the prison was put into lockdown before he was recaptured. He escaped in the van that had brought him to the jail.

The disclosure of an almost identical escape in February 2019 raises questions over potential systemic failings within Wandsworth’s security and even the wider prison system.

Police have said Khalife poses a low risk to the public Credit: Danielle Sheridan

Khalife, an ex-serviceman accused of trying to leak information to Iran and leaving fake bombs at a military base, used his privileged position on the kitchen staff to gain access to a vehicle delivering food to the jail.

Wearing his chef’s uniform of red and white chequered trousers, he strapped himself under the van before it left the jail. Officers again failed to spot him with their mirrors in the “air lock” before he escaped. An alert was only raised 20 minutes after he went missing, instigating a nationwide manhunt and all-ports alert.

On Thursday, Alex Chalk, the Justice Secretary, launched an investigation, to report by the end of this week, into how Khalife evaded security checks and why he was placed in a category B prison, rather than the highest category A, despite being refused bail after being labelled a flight risk.

Mr Chalk has also ordered a review of whether the security risk of all the prisoners in Wandsworth has been correctly categorised and how many other terrorist prisoners are being held in Category B jails. An independent inquiry headed by an external figure will investigate the circumstances around Khalife’s escape.

Inquiries will focus on the role of operational support grade officers (OSGs) who are responsible for manning the security posts at the gates and checking the 20 or so vehicles that come and go from Wandsworth every day.

They are among the lowest paid staff in prisons, earning as little as £21,355 or £26,000 in London, with highest turnover at 17 per cent a year as they are lured into better paid jobs and suffer the biggest shortages. There are 30 per cent fewer OSGs than in 2010 despite their being responsible for more prisoners.

They are supposed to undergo three week’s training on security, but insiders claimed some do not even get that because prisons are so short of staff. All the security posts on Wandsworth’s gates were staffed on Wednesday, which Mr Chalk suggested raised questions over whether security protocols were followed.

Staff ‘beleaguered’ and ‘underpaid’

“We have a beleaguered, inexperienced group of underpaid staff doing a responsible job around gate security. Are they properly supervised, supported and trained? When there is pressure in the system, there’s a risk these things fall by the wayside,” said ex-jail governor Pia Sinha, the director of the Prison Reform Trust.

Two watchdog reports last year warned that staffing levels at Wandsworth were a “serious problem” with most officers lacking “prison craft” because they had less than two years’ experience and absence rates of more than 30 per cent. On one day last December, only seven officers turned up for a night shift to cover 1,500 inmates.

Remand prisoners like Khalife are more likely to secure “plum” kitchen jobs as lengthy lead times before a trial mean their stay in Wandsworth is longer as they are less likely to be moved onto other jails. As an essential job in the jail, prison chiefs want stable, long-term workers to help.

Khalife would have been risk assessed for the job but, said an insider, “being ex-army and well-behaved would have ticked the boxes”.

The job would have given Khalife time and opportunity to plan his escape, according to the insider. “It is hard to imagine he would have done that on impulse. In order to strap himself under the van, you need to work out the weak spots and get the materials to do it,” they said.

Situation a ‘catastrophic failure’

Despite being charged with terror-related offences, insiders said it would not have automatically categorised him for higher security Category A prisons such as Belmarsh, also in south London.

Those expected to be sentenced to more than 10 years would be classed as “potential Cat A,” which would spark an assessment of all risk factors including physical violence before a final decision was taken. Police have said that Khalife poses a low risk to the public.

Professor Ian Acheson, a former prison governor who was head of security at HMP Wandsworth in the 1990s, said Khalife’s escape was at best a “catastrophic failure” and that he should have been at a category A prison.

“It’s incredibly embarrassing for the prison service, but it’s not entirely surprising given what we know about what’s going on Wandsworth at the moment,” said Professor Acheson.