Rishi Sunak's government has revealed that 80 prison officers failed to show up on the day the terror suspect Daniel Khalife escaped from the jail.
Nearly 40 per cent of the prison staff did not attend their expected shift, a Tory minister said - but he said initial investigations had suggested that staff shortages were not a factor in the apparent security breach.
The mental health crisis among police officers had resulted from stress, low pay, and a rise in violence and attacks on staff. Labour said the 'astonishing' rate of absence at Wandsworth showed staffing problems were'making the public less safe'.
It comes after Khalife was charged with leaving Wandsworth on 6 September by strapping himself to the underside of a food lorry. The 21-year-old was arrested four days later on Friday while being pulled off a bike by a counterterrorism officer near a west London canal.
On Friday, Keith Bristow, a former director-general of the National Crime Agency, was appointed to investigate the incident. He will look at what access Khalife had to certain materials while in prison, as well as staffing levels and security measures.
The investigation also will look at whether Khalife had 'inside help' with his alleged escape, a possibility first revealed by The Independent last Thursday.
The admission of prison staff absences was a response to a parliamentary question submitted by Labour. Prisons Minister Damian Hinds said that only 61 per cent of Wandsworth's officers had attended work as expected on the day of the alleged escape.
The biggest problem that faces Wandsworth, said Charlie Taylor, the chief inspector of prisons, is a lack of staff. His 2021 report found that 30 per cent of Wandsworth police officers were either off sick or had failed to turn up at the time of the inspection.
Many officers in England struggled with mental health issues, with some off work because of assaults by inmates, Taylor said. The inspector said the rise in prison violence had created a 'vicious cycle' in which staff stayed home, leaving a lesser number of staff on hand to deal with or prevent violent incidents.
The chief inspector said his team had issued an urgent notification for improvement at high-security prison HMP Woodhill last month, where only half of the more experienced 'band 3' officers were available for duty.
Taylor said staff shortages are a continuing issue in many prisons, including Birmingham, Swaleside, Stocken, Elmley and others. The report also found a 40 per cent shortfall in staff availability in Hertfordshire.
Andrea Albert, the president of the Prison Governors' Association, admitted that there is a'recruitment and retention problem', which she said is due to a rise in violence, stress, low pay, and poor development opportunities.
However, Albert added, some prisons are over-recruiting, so staff can be sent to 'places like Wandsworth' to bolster numbers.
The ministry of justice sources said that the 80 absences included some annual leave, maternity leave and training, so were not all down to officers calling in sick or unauthorised absences.
Labour's Rosena Allin-Khan, MP for Wandsworth, said it 'beggar's belief' that almost 40 per cent unavailability is considered acceptable.
Shabana Mahmood, shadow justice secretary, said the 'astonishing' fact that almost 40 per cent of staff did not turn up made it clear that the dire conditions at the prison are having wide-ranging implications.
It would be premature to talk about the'specific incidents' until an independent investigation has established the facts. He said he would not be drawn on whether the level of absenteeism was acceptable, but urged people to turn up (to work) wherever they work.
The Independent published analysis this week showing that more than 60 percent of officers in British prisons had more than 10 years of experience in 2017 - but that figure had plunged to around 30 per cent by June this year.
The POA cited reduced staffing levels as a result of government cuts. The staffing figures on Wandsworth were 'quite disturbing', Mr Pimblett said, but added that there was 'no difference in many establishments across England and Wales'.
The union's chief said workers don't take overtime due to burnout and the very fact that these are dangerous and stress-ridden places to work.
In a statement, he said the government had brought in 4,000 more prison officers since March 2017, adding: ''It's been a long time in prison and we have brought in more than 4,000 more officers.