LONDON — FIVE Northern Ireland terrorists were so pampered in their special jail that it is hard to see why they would want to escape. But they tried, and the aftershock is rocking Britain's prison system.
An official probe of the armed breakout by the Irish Republican Army inmates in September has revealed conditions at the Whitmoor top security prison that are so bizarre that Home Secretary Michael Howard, a senior member of Prime Minister John Major's Cabinet, may have to resign.
IRA prisoners lived in near-hotel conditions with access to a workshop where they made a rope ladder and other escape equipment. Prison guards went on 25-mile shopping trips to buy goods for inmates. After one prisoner complained about potatoes being too small, a guard went shopping for larger ones.
Prisoners were allowed to make international telephone calls and pile up personal items in comfortable cells. One prisoner's cell contained 330 personal items, including a Christian Dior beach towel, a Lacoste polo shirt, and Givenchy eau de toilette.
The three IRA inmates, taking advantage of lax security and stockpiled handguns and explosives, were able to intimidate guards and escape from the prison, which is near Cambridge.
After the escape, the five IRA detainees and another prisoner were recaptured, but not before a prison guard was shot and wounded with a handgun that had been smuggled into the jail.
Sir John Woodcock, a former chief inspector of police, conducted the official inquiry of the breakout, which happened in the run-up to political negotiations between the British government and the IRA and only days after the IRA's Aug. 31 cease-fire.
Jack Straw, a home affairs spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, says the Woodcock report presents a ``catalogue of incompetence and negligence, compounded by buck-passing, which simply beggars belief.'' He says it has produced the worst crisis in Britain's prisons for 30 years.
ALONG with Secretary Howard, Derek Lewis, the director of the prison service, is also facing pressure to resign. Howard, who released the probe's finding on Dec. 19, said he will not resign, claiming that the report does not criticize him personally.
But his position as Home Secretary has been under mounting pressure, and several of his decisions have been overturned in the courts.
Mr. Lewis, meanwhile, called the Woodcock report ``devastating,'' and admitted that the September escape was ``a massive failure in our first duty to the public of keeping prisoners securely in custody.''
As Home Secretary, Howard bears political responsibility for the prison service, while Lewis is responsible for day-to-day management. Both men have been pressed to explain why a jail facility designed to house dangerous IRA prisoners was allowed to become, in the words of Woodcock's report, ``a disaster waiting to happen.'' They have declined to do so.
Guards, however, say privately that orders to give IRA prisoners special treatment appeared to be political.
One former member of staff at Whitemoor said: ``The intention seems to have been to keep the IRA inmates sweet for political reasons,'' such as the British government's wish to involve the IRA in peace talks.
In the September escape, two handguns were used. Afterward, a prison search turned up Semtex plastic explosive, fuses, and detonators in the false base of an artist's paint box.
Whitemoor was designed to be totally secure. IRA prisoners were held in a special unit inside the main prison building - a jail within a jail. To escape they had to scale an inner wall and an outer wall 30 feet high.
Whitemoor opened in 1991 and cost 58 million ($90 million). Since September, special category prisoners have been held in other English jails while new security equipment, including a steel antihelicopter screen, is installed at Whitemoor.