Humiliated prison bosses are under intensifying pressure to explain how a terror suspect managed to escape through the front gates while strapped to the bottom of a food delivery truck.
Daniel Khalife’s ‘Colditz-style’ flight from HMP Wandsworth on Wednesday – while still wearing his chef’s uniform – has been called ‘embarrassing but not surprising’ by a former head of security at the south London category B jail.
Justice Secretary Alex Chalk told the Commons today that an independent investigation will take place into the escape, including why the known flight risk was not held in a high security prison.
He also told MPs that two urgent reviews will look at the categorisation and placement of all HMP Wandsworth prisoners and all those in custody charged with terrorism offences.
Mr Chalk confirmed that ‘strapping’ was found underneath a delivery van, which he added may indicate Khalife held on to the underside of it in order to escape.
He added: ‘The early indications are that the security posts were manned in Wandsworth at the time of this incident. Now we need to know that having been manned, what went wrong.’
Outlining what happened, Mr Chalk told MPs: ‘At approximately 7.30 yesterday morning, a vehicle which had made a delivery to the prison’s kitchen left HMP Wandsworth.
‘Shortly afterwards, local contingency plans for an unaccounted prisoner were activated and in line with standard procedure the police were informed.
‘The prison was put into a state of lockdown while staff attempted to determine Daniel Khalife’s whereabouts.
‘The vehicle was stopped and searched by police after the alert was raised.
‘Strapping was found underneath the vehicle which appeared to indicate Daniel Khalife may have held onto the underside of it in order to escape.’
Mr Chalk said he had spoken to prison service leaders immediately after Khalife’s escape to establish what known about it.
He said: ‘I made clear then and I reiterate now that no stone must be left unturned in getting to the bottom of what happened.
‘Who was on duty that morning? In what roles, ranging from the kitchen to the prison gate? What protocols were in place? Were they followed?’
Professor Ian Acheson, a former head of security at Wandsworth, said Khalife’s escape was ‘at best’ a ‘catastrophic system failure’.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It’s incredibly embarrassing for the prison service but it’s not entirely surprising given what we know about what’s going on Wandsworth at the moment.’
Ex-Met Police commander John O’Connor compared the escape to ‘something which could have happened at Colditz rather than a modern prison’.
He told The Sun: ‘It makes the prison service look like a laughing stock. It is utterly ridiculous he managed to escape so easily with such a basic old-fashioned ploy.’
Experts have said Khalife should have been held at the high security HMP Belmarsh in southeast London.
Reports suggested he had been moved from there to Wandsworth, but Mr Chalk denied that was the case.
Speaking to Sky News, former Scotland Yard detective Peter Bleksley said Khalife ‘undoubtedly’ should have been in a category A prison.
He said: ‘He has clearly been put in the wrong place at the wrong time and been able to escape.
‘There’s a lot of people with very embarrassed red faces I would imagine today and they need to be held to account.’
He said police will be hoping Khalife is working alone because he will likely need to steal food and clothing, increasing the chances he will draw attention to himself.
But he added: ‘If this is pre-planned and he is supported by a network of fellow minded criminals then of course he could have cash, shelter, change of clothing, false passport and may already have left the country.’
People living close to the prison have spoken of their fears that the former British Army soldier could be ‘hiding in their gardens’.
Richard Mbuesi, 52, said he was at work yesterday when Khalife escaped and only heard the news when he returned home last night.
He lives just a stone throw away from the prison, telling Metro: ‘When you hear something like this has happened it does make you worried. I know I live close to a prison but you don’t think anyone will actually escape.
‘He could be anywhere right now and that is what I am worried about.’
Margaret Small, 73, who lives on nearby Loxley Road said she was worried that Khalife could be hiding in her garden.
She told Metro: ‘How did this happen? I’m not even sure if I should be at home, I hope he isn’t anywhere near here. He could be in our garden sheds, you just don’t know where he could be hiding.’
The escape prompted extra security checks at major transport hubs, including airports.
Kent Police also confirmed junctions eight and nine of the M20 were temporarily shut on Thursday due to the enhanced security checks – and to allow freight heading for mainland Europe to queue on the empty section of the motorway.
Khalife, who was awaiting trial after allegedly planting a fake bomb at an RAF base and gathering information that might be useful to terrorists or enemies of the UK, was discharged from the Army in May 2023. He has denied the three charges against him.
He was last seen wearing his cook’s uniform, a white T-shirt, red and white chequered trousers and brown, steel toe-cap boots, police said, and is slim and 6ft 2in, with short brown hair.
The head of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command, Commander Dominic Murphy, previously said there was ‘no reason to believe Khalife poses a threat to the wider public’ but urged people not to approach him and to call 999 if they spotted him.
Responding to Mr Chalk’s statement for Labour, shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood urged Mr Chalk to ‘get a grip’ of the criminal justice system.
She said: ‘It simply beggars belief that a man being held on suspected terror charges was able to escape a prison by clinging to the bottom of a food delivery van.
‘The simplest question for the Justice Secretary today is how on earth was this allowed to happen?’
Downing Street said the Prime Minister has confidence in the Justice Secretary over the handling of a prison escape and rejected blame for the incident being apportioned to cuts to the prison service.
Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman did however admit there was a need for more staff at the prison.
Khalife has links to north-west England and Kingston in London but Mr Murphy said the hunt was covering the whole of the UK.
He was previously stationed at the Ministry of Defence’s Beacon Barracks in Stafford.
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