Independent News and Media

Violent robber ‘walks out door’ of prison with visitors

A "VIOLENT" robber managed to escape from a high-security prison run by the outsourcing giant Serco by walking out with a group of people who were visiting him, The Independent has learnt.

Haroon Ahmed, 26, is being sought by police after escaping from HMP Dovegate in Staffordshire on Wednesday. He had been in jail since 2008, after being convicted of robbing a garage armed with a knife.

Sources close to the prison, which has been run by the private company Serco since it opened in 2001, said Ahmed had managed to slip away unnoticed during visiting hours despite being on the prison's "watch list".

The extraordinary escape came just hours before the publication of a report by the Government's prisons watchdog which raised concerns about "very tight" staffing levels at Dovegate. Inspectors said that, on some occasions, entire wings of the prison had been left unstaffed while inmates were out of their cells.

Dovegate is a Category B jail, designed to accommodate prisoners who are considered highly likely to attempt escape. It currently holds more than 900 male inmates, most of whom have been convicted of serious violent offences.

One former member of staff at the prison, who did not want to be named, told The Independent that Ahmed should have had to pass through at least three locked doors to escape. "He left the visits hall with his visitors and just walked out, basically, which is shocking for a Cat B establishment," they said.

"He never even used violence [to make his escape], and it's very rare for this to happen."

Agreeing with inspectors that staffing levels at the prison were too low, the source added: "The situation at the moment is really bad - that's why I feel it needs to be put out there. The Ministry of Justice needs to do something about it."

The source also claimed that corruption among prison staff was "rife", with guards earning money by smuggling items such as iPhones to prisoners, and that reports detailing potential security problems at the jail often went unread.

Staffordshire Police said Ahmed, who is described as Asian, 6ft tall with a thin build and short black hair in a crew cut, had escaped from the prison at around 4.15pm on Wednesday wearing jeans and a grey T-shirt. He is believed to be staying in the Derby area where he has "numerous connections".

A spokesman for the force said: "Officers involved in the search for him [on Thursday] arrested his brother, Majeed Ahmed, 25, of Derby, and have charged him with assisting a prisoner in escaping from prison. He has been released on bail to appear before magistrates on 25 June.

"A black Volkswagen Golf was also recovered as part of the investigation and will be subject to a detailed forensic examination. Due to [Haroon Ahmed's] conviction for a violent robbery we advise members of the public not to approach him."

Michael Guy, Serco's director at Dovegate, said: "We are taking this extremely seriously and I have commissioned an investigation into the circumstances of the escape. We are working closely with the police to identify what went wrong and to address any failings."

A spokesperson for the Prison Service said it was "working closely" with police, adding: "Escapes from prison custody are extremely rare but we take each one incredibly seriously. Public protection is our top priority."

When prison inspectors visited the jail in January this year, they found high levels of violence, bullying, unjustified segregation and poor visiting arrangements. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, said the jail's performance "had dipped" since the inspectors' last visit, with a new management team struggling to cope with an influx of violent inmates.

"Prisoners were left feeling … insecure because staffing on units was often insufficient: we observed short periods when no staff were present on the units, even though a number of prisoners were unlocked," he wrote in his report, published the day after Ahmed escaped.

Inspectors praised the prison's good living conditions and its resettlement work, but recommended that staffing levels on residential wings should be raised "to reassure prisoners about their safety". It is understood that the jail's staffing arrangements were already being reviewed by Serco before inspectors visited.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "Dovegate is an overcrowded and understaffed private prison that has struggled to tackle serious problems. Levels of violence and self-harm are high, and illicit drugs are easy to obtain.

"When inspectors visited, there were occasions when they found no staff on the wings. This is particularly worrying in a prison where four people took their own lives in 2013."

Responding to Mr Hardwick's report, Mr Guy said: "HMP Dovegate has recently faced a number of significant challenges including an influx of category-B prisoners, many of whom have been convicted of serious violent offences and a large number of whom have mental health issues.

"We are pleased that the report recognises that we are focused on these challenges, that we have already made a number of improvements and that we have realistic plans for the future. We fully accept the recommendations… We know we have more to do."

Case file: Robber on the run

Haroon Ahmed was only 19 when in January 2008 he robbed a garage in Derby at knifepoint. Shaun King, 20, was his accomplice.

Derby Crown Court heard that the pair had their faces covered when they burst into the service station. "One of the men jumped on the counter with the knife," cashier Kulan Sakthy recalled later. "He shoved me on to the counter and put the knife on my neck and said 'Open the till'. I said, 'What do you want me to do? Just don't do anything to me'. It was terrifying."

The men made off with £500, cigarettes and mobile phones, but were arrested.

Private prisons: previous scandals

* This month a report into Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre in Northamptonshire found that children had been subjected to "degrading treatment" and "racist comments" from staff under the influence of illegal drugs. Six members of staff at the G4S-run jail were sacked.

* Teenagers at a Serco-run Young Offender Institution near Bristol were "exposed to unacceptable levels of violence" by staff, inspectors said in 2013. HMP Ashfield is now an adult prison, but is still managed by Serco.

* Inspectors found a prisoner had been held in a "squalid" segregation cell for more than five years, at the women-only HMP Bronzefield in 2013. Sodexo said that due to her complex needs "no other option" was available.

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