Prisons Minister promises review after ‘Skull Cracker’ goes on run

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A review will take place after a violent armed robber dubbed “the Skull Cracker” went missing after temporarily being allowed out of jail, the Prisons Minister has said.

Michael Wheatley, 55, who was given 13 life sentences in 2002 for a string of brutal raids on banks, failed to return to HMP Standford Hill open prison on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent.

Wheatley raided 13 building societies and banks over 10 months in 2001 and 2002 while on parole from a 27-year sentence for other robberies.

He earned his nickname after pistol-whipping victims, including a 73-year-old woman, during the raids.

Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright said there would be a full review of the case, including an assessment of the release on temporary licence (ROTL) process.

Mr Wright said a temporary licence can be an important tool to help offenders reintegrate into communities but that “it should not be an automatic right”.

Ministers have said there will be a toughening up of the licence scheme so that prisoners are subjected to stricter risk assessments and tagged.

Mr Wright said: “We are not prepared to see public safety compromised, the system has been too lax up to now and we are changing that.

“In future when prisoners are let out on temporary licence they will be tagged, more strictly risk assessed and tested in the community under strict conditions before being released.”

Conservative backbencher Philip Davies said that whoever had allowed Wheatley out of prison was “a berk” and questioned why he was in an open prison in the first place.

The MP for Shipley said: “It is completely ludicrous that a serving life sentence prisoner is even in an open prison where they can simply walk out.

“As far as I am concerned whoever allowed him to be in an open prison should be sacked, it is a complete disgrace.”

Kent Police has urged members not to approach Wheatley if he is spotted, but to dial 999 instead.

A police spokesman said Wheatley, originally of Limehouse in east London, has links across south-east England.

Wheatley admitted 13 charges of robbery and 13 of possessing an imitation firearm – a blank firing semi-automatic pistol – in 2002.

The robberies between June 2001 and April the following year were mainly on small branches in areas Wheatley knew, ranging from Southampton in Hampshire to Royston in Hertfordshire.

He was ordered to serve a minimum of eight years before being eligible for consideration for parole.