The policy of putting high-risk prisoners, including sex offenders and those coming to the end of life sentences, in open jails before their release is questioned today by the chief inspector of prisons.
Anne Owers says in her inspection report on Leyhill open prison, Gloucestershire, the fact that the 50 high-risk or very high-risk prisoners held there cannot work or go on visits outside the prison undermines the point of them being in open conditions.
She says it is increasingly difficult to find places in the community to "test" the relatively large group of sex offenders at Leyhill before their release as employers and colleges would no longer normally accept them. Her anxieties come as the prison service has told governors to maximise the number of inmates moved to them from overcrowded local jails elsewhere in the system. Governors are now instructed that all suitable prisoners serving less than four years should be transferred to open prisons for the final 56 days of their sentence.
In the face of such pressure, not all the prisoners sent to open jails have been correctly assessed as low-security status. In one case at Leyhill the prison inspectors found that a man who arrived from Birmingham prison without his security file had to be sent back within 24 hours.
"It was ironic that the area of the prison about which we had most concern was resettlement: its core objective," says Ms Owers of the 500-place flagship open prison. "This was partly as a result of the mismatch between what the prison could reasonably provide and what prisoners expected and needed if they were to be eligible for parole, or prepared for employment. There was insufficient clear or consistent guidance for the prison or for prisoners in some of these areas."
Ms Owers' report says that like all open prisons in an overcrowded system, Leyhill is receiving a wider range of prisoners, including some serving short sentences and some unsuitable for open conditions. "Managers were rightly concerned that Leyhill was required to take increasing numbers of such prisoners that they were not able to progress," she adds, calling on the National Offender Management Service and the Parole Board to hold talks on the "appropriateness" of placing higher-risk prisoners in open jails.
"These issues caused great frustration for prisoners, whose progression through the system seemed at the last moment to be blocked," the report says.
The report also praises Leyhill for tightening its security in the past year despite the changing nature of its population, including reducing the number of prisoners who absconded from the jail.
Phil Wheatley, the director general of the Prison Service, said he welcomed the progress highlighted in the report
A Prison Service spokeswoman added that Leyhill was working with the community to find appropriate placements for all prisoners and ensure that public protection was maintained.
An individual risk assessment is completed on each prisoner to determine whether they are suitable to work outside the prison and whether they need to be supervised.