80 prison officers didn’t show up on day Daniel Khalife ‘escaped’

Rishi Sunak’s government has revealed that 80 prison officers failed to show up for work HMP Wandsworth on the day terror suspect Daniel Abed Khalife allegedly escaped from the jail.

Nearly four in 10 of the prison’s staff skipped shifts, a Tory minister admitted – but the government continued to insist that staff shortages were not a factor in the apparent security breach.

On Monday Khalife was charged with fleeing from HMP Wandsworth on 6 September by strapping himself to the underside of a food delivery lorry.

The 21-year-old ex-solider, who had worked in the kitchen, was arrested on a canal towpath in west London on Saturday after being pulled off a bike by a plain-clothes counter-terrorism officer.

Responding to a Labour question about staffing levels on the day of the incident, prisons minister Damian Hinds said only 61 per cent of Wandsworth’s officers attended work as expected.

But the minister said: “All staff in both the kitchen and the gatehouse were on duty on 6 September. An initial investigation into Daniel Khalife’s escape did not find the staffing level to be a contributing factor.”

The Sunak government has been reluctant to accept staff shortages or absences could be to blame. But an independent probe led by ex-National Crime Agency boss is now looking at Wandsworth’s wider shortcomings – with staffing levels set to be scrutinised.

Charlie Taylor, the chief inspector of prisons, said there were too many prisoners in Wandsworth for the amount of staff” – adding that his 2021 report found 30 per cent of prison officers were either off sick or failed to turn up.

Writing for The Independent, Mr Taylor said HMP Wandsworth had become “one of the most squalid, overcrowded prisons in the estate” – arguing “the single biggest problem that faces Wandsworth is a lack of staff”.

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Khalife charged with escaping HMP Wandsworth

(PA)

Mr Taylor said many of officers stuggled with stress and other mental health issues, with some off work becuase of assaults by inmates. The inspector added that increased prison violence created a “vicious cycle” where staff stayed at home or wanted to quit – causing violence to increase.

While the inspector’s 2021 report found staff absences at Wandsworth at 30 per cent, the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) found in 2022 that the problem was so acute that absences reached 40 per cent on some days.

Andrea Albert, president of the Prison Governors’ Association, admitted there was a “recruitment and retention problem” due to a rise in violence, stress, low pay and “poor” development opportunities.

“We do have, across some of our prisons, we do have high levels of staff sickness, we do have wellbeing issues. It is a very stressful environment,” she told BBC Radio 4’s World at One. “I would probably say that in some of our prisons it does border on being quite dangerous.”

“There are prisons that are running with similar staffing levels to Wandsworth, so they’re running with maybe 30% to 40% reduction in staff on a daily basis,” she Ms Albert. But the governors’ chief said some prisons were over-recruiting, so staff can be sent to “places like Wandsworth” to bolster their numbers.

Vehicle searched by police during their hunt for Daniel Khalife

(PA)

Mr Hinds insisted that staffing levels at Wandsworth on the day of the security breach “were above the minimum staffing level required”. While 125 prison officers attended their shift, 80 officers did not.

Labour’s Rosena Allin-Khan, MP for Wandsworth, who asked the question about staffing on the day of the alleged escape, said it “beggars belief” that less than two-thirds of staff turning up was acceptable.

Ms Allin-Khan told The Independent: “When I visited Wandsworth prison a few months ago, the biggest issue they were facing were staff shortages. This is why I raised concerns about staffing levels – which showed just six officers turned up for a shift one night in December. The government chose to ignore my concerns.”

She added: “It beggars belief that the government is claiming that 61% of prison officers attending a shift is acceptable. Their complacency is astounding and illustrates how unfit they are to run the country. Our communities are being failed.”

Daniel Khalife at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Monday

(PA)

Experts have warned that the staffing crisis and lack of experienced officers was leaving jails vulnerable to increased violence and control by gangs.

Analysis by The Independent published this week shows that some 60 per cent of officers across UK prisons had more than 10 years of experience in 2017 – but that figure had plunged to around 30 per cent by June this year.

The prison officers’ union, the POA, pointed to government cuts as a factor in reduced staffing levels. “You cannot take out £900m from the budget … and expect the prison service to operate as if nothing has happened,” said union boss Steve Gillan.

Amid questions about whether terror suspect Khalife should have been held in a category A prison, rather a category B facility, around 40 inmates were moved out of Wandsworth this week. Justice secretary Alex Chalk said they were moved out of “an abundance of caution” and an extra governor had been put in place.

On Friday Keith Bristow, former director-general of the National Crime Agency, was appointed as the investigator into the alleged prison escape. His probe will consider whether relevant protocols were in place, how Khalife was given access to materials, along with staffing levels and security measures.

Mr Hinds responded to the Ms Allin-Khan’s question by saying the government had brought in 4,000 more prison officers than in March 2017. “We are also recruiting 5,000 prison officers across public and private prisons by the mid-2020s,” he added.

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