Full Fact captures 120 escaped prisoners

2 November 2012

Sometimes, even ordinarily reliable sources get things wrong.

Normally, Full Fact would consider figures provided by a Minister in response to a Parliamentary Question to be a reliable source. So too did the Daily Mail this week as it reported that: "eight prisoners are on the run... including one offender who is 'highly dangerous' to public", and that 25 prisoners had escaped during Labour's time in Government.

The figures came from questions asked on Tuesday by Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan about the number of prison breaks under the Coalition compared to Labour's own record. The Minister duly obliged Mr Khan with figures suggesting that 25 prisoners had escaped during Labour's time in office.

However, a look at the Ministry of Justice's (MoJ) statistics on prison performance suggested that quite a large number of prisoners appeared to have escaped the Minister's eye: 

This data is presented only for financial years, and so the best proxy for Labour's time in office is April 1997 to March 2010. This isn't exactly the same period as covered in Hansard, but its close enough to illustrate that there is undoubtedly a problem with the Minister's figures.

Taking prisons alone, approximately 146 prisoners escaped around the time that Labour were in office, along with 93 during escort. Jeremy Wright's figures don't make clear whether escort escapes - those made while the prisoner is in transit - are included in his statistic. Even if they aren't, this leaves around 120 prisoners unaccounted for in the Hansard figures.

Without an explanation for why these figures were so different, Full Fact contacted the MoJ to ask what we were missing. A day later we were informed that, in fact, the Minister's figures in Hansard were wrong, and the published MoJ stats should be used instead. This, they said, was down to an 'administrative error'.

They also informed us that the Minister would be correcting the record next week.

This is good news, but there is a secondary problem: the figures were also reported in the Daily Mail, and large numbers of its readers would have been misinformed about the scale of prison breaks. We'll therefore also be asking that it prints a correction.

How many are still at large?

The Minister also claimed that eight escaped prisoners remain at large from 1997 to the present day, however we'll have to wait until next week when the revised statistics are published to see if this was also subject to an administrative error. 

What we do know, in the meantime, is that as of September last year there were two escaped prisoners at large, though this only covers those who've escaped since April 2004. It also won't include the category A prisoner John Anslow, who escaped from a prison van in January and remains at large. Ministry of Justice figures confirm this was the first escape of a category A inmate since 1995.

We shouldn't ignore the fact that the number of prison escapes, and the much larger number of prisoners absconding (escaping without breaking a physical barrier of some sort), shows a marked declining trend over the last decade.

Even so, Full Fact is happy to return the 120 prisoners to the MoJ's attention.

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