JUSTICE minister Chris Grayling may rue the day he ordered a full inquiry into how serial armed robber and repeat prison absconder Michael Wheatley, aka “Skull Cracker”, came to be on the run last month and attempting an armed robbery yet again.
The Eye has learned that, unusually, the Parole Board was excluded from advising on the final decision in March to move Wheatley, who was serving 13 life sentences imposed in 2002 for a string of violent bank raids, back to an open jail, HMP Standford Hill on the Isle of Sheppey. Instead, the decision was made by the Ministry of Justice’s public protection unit, acting on behalf of Chris Grayling himself.
Normally the Parole Board makes recommendations about whether to release or transfer to an open jail any inmate who is serving an indeterminate life sentence and who has reached his or her “tariff” or recommended minimum term. Late last summer the Parole Board did recommend the transfer of 55-year-old Wheatley, who had completed his eight-year tariff, to Standford Hill in Kent. But shortly before Christmas the governor there, concerned about Wheatley’s behaviour inside the jail and on town visits, rescinded the order and sent him back to a secure closed prison.
This was hardly a controversial or unexpected decision. Wheatley’s history of escape and going on crime sprees is almost as long as his 30-year criminal record. In 1988, four years into an earlier sentence, he fled while on a hospital visit and committed nine burglaries while on the run. In 1992, sentenced to another 11 years, he absconded again while visiting an optician and carried out several armed robberies for which he was jailed again 12 years ago.
After the Standford Hill governor decided at the end of last year that Wheatley was too great a risk to be held in open conditions and had him locked up again, his case was reconsidered two months later by the MoJ’s public protection unit.
Set up 15 years ago in response to concerns about high-risk prisoners who are soon to be released, it does have the power to transfer prisoners to open conditions without the advice of the Parole Board, but it rarely ever does so – not least to avoid the sort of political flak generated by the Wheatley case when things go wrong.
The Parole Board confirmed to the Eye that it had initially recommended Wheatley was suitable for a transfer to open conditions last August. But it would not comment on subsequent events after his behaviour led to him being returned to a secure jail. However, insiders suggest that board members were “furious” the finger of blame was pointed in their direction when Wheatley was recently arrested while on the run for attempted armed robbery.
They suggest that backlogs and delays at the Parole Board may have been one of the factors in the MoJ’s unusual decision not to involve the board. A supreme court ruling last October that prisoners were entitled to face-to-face parole hearings, rather than a paper exercise, means the board now has to hold up to 14,000 hearings a year – a threefold increase. Coupled with budget cuts, which saw parole staff cut by a fifth, there is now a huge backlog of cases, putting additional pressure on overcrowded prisons.
No doubt Grayling’s “full inquiry into the circumstances of the affair” will, er, highlight all these factors.