Open jail had been advised that armed robber Michael Wheatley should not be allowed town visits
Michael Wheatley arriving at a magistrates court after spending four days on the run. Photograph: Press Association
Concerns that "Skullcracker", a notorious armed robber who went on the run from prison after being allowed out on day release, was an absconding risk were raised days before he disappeared.
The Observer has learned that prison and probation staff charged with supervising Michael Wheatley, who absconded from HMP Standford Hill on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent last weekend while out on day release, questioned whether he should be allowed to make a trip into a nearby town.
It was one of several concerns flagged by staff in the months before Wheatley, who was given 13 life sentences in 2002 for raids on banks and building societies, went on the run, culminating with him being recaptured and charged with carrying out an attempted armed robbery on a Surrey building society.
The revelations will prove embarrassing for the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, who has pledged to restore public confidence in the criminal justice system and take a tougher line against prisoners. They also raise questions about how the prison service assesses the absconding risk posed by dangerous offenders who have been moved to open conditions.
The Observer has established that Wheatley, who spent four days on the run, had a history of absconding since being jailed in 1984 for nine years following a series of shop raids. In 1988 he absconded while on a hospital visit and went on to commit nine break-ins. In 1989 he was jailed for 16 years for break-ins and robberies, reduced to 11 years on appeal. Three years later, while on a day release to an optician, he absconded again and went on to commit several armed robberies. In 1993 he was jailed for a further seven years and in 2002 given the 13 life sentences, with a minimum term of eight years.
Last summer he was transferred to open conditions, but was returned to closed conditions in December after concerns were raised about his behaviour both inside prison and out on town visits. In February his probation officer approved his return to an open prison but warned about his risk of reoffending. The next month he was transferred to Standford Hill, but with the recommendation that he should not be allowed to make town visits.
However, on 3 May, the day he disappeared, he was allowed out, even though in an entry on his file someone had asked "Do you really want to do this?" when the trip was discussed.
His disappearance has prompted questions about whether the Ministry of Justice is keen to move more category C prisoners to open conditions. Criminal justice experts believe the measures are being introduced to relieve pressure on a system that is struggling to cope following the closure of 10 jails since 2010.
"Open jails are needed to help rehabilitation," said Harry Fletcher, an adviser to the probation union Napo. "However, prisoners should only be allocated following a full risk assessment. In this case staff seem to have been worried about further offending and absconding. There is a history of running away while on day release. The issue is a failure of government to provide enough secure places and pressure on staff to move prisoners through the system."
But the MoJ denied prisoners were being moved into open jails due to overcrowding issues. Prisons minister Jeremy Wright also defended the use of temporary release as "an important tool in helping offenders reintegrate. Any prisoner who fails to return will be transferred immediately to a closed prison and face longer in prison."
Philip Davies, Tory MP for Shipley, West Yorkshire, suggested that whoever had allowed Wheatley out of prison was a "berk'" who should be sacked.
The Prison Governors Association said it was appalled by his comments and said the ultimate responsibility for transferring prisoners to the open estate lay with the justice secretary. "Research suggests that reoffending rates among those released from open conditions are far lower compared with those released from closed prisons," it said. "The movement to the open estate for those prisoners serving life sentences usually follows a recommendation made by the parole board. Any such decision will be approved by the secretary of state for justice, based on an in-depth review."