Ford Open Prison
Ford Open Prison in West Sussex.Grim23

There has been a vast focus on convicts absconding from open prisons in recent months, following the headline grabbing escape of the "Skull Cracker" Michael Wheatley, from HMP Standford Hill.

It has since emerged that 90 prisoners are currently on the run from Ford Open Prison in West Sussex, with some having gone missing years ago.

Local MP Nick Gibb said he was concerned about how prisoners are picked to be sent to prison and that too many abscond: "The theory is that these are prisoners who are coming to the end of their sentences and therefore should no longer be at risk of absconding," he said.

"The risk assessment of prisoners who are being sent to Ford open prison is clearly not vigorous enough."

However, how open prisons operate and the function they serve appears to be being overlooked and overshadowed by cases of absconding.

What are open prisons?

Open prisons, or Category D prisons, have lower security than closed prisons and are intended for "prisoners who present a low risk; can be reasonably trusted in open conditions and for whom open conditions are appropriate".

In the UK, are two female open prisons and nine male open prisons, according to Inside Information.

Open prisons have been in use in the UK since 1936. They are the "most effective" way of making sure prisoners are suitably risk-assessed before being released into the community under licence conditions, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said.

"These prisons also provide effective supervision for prisoners who do not require the security conditions of the closed estate, because they have been assessed as having a low risk of harm to the public and a low risk of absconding by the independent Parole Board and/or NOMS (National Offender Management Service)."

Why are violent criminals in open prisons?

Open prisons house convicts that are nonviolent offenders, people guilty of white collar crimes or serious offenders who are coming to the end of their sentences. For more serious criminals, open prisons are used as an important means of rehabilitation and assimilation into the community.

"The main purpose of open conditions is to test prisoners in conditions more similar to those that they will face in the community," the MoJ spokesperson said.

"Time spent in open prisons affords prisoners the opportunity to find work, re-establish family ties, reintegrate into the community and ensure housing needs are met. For many prisoners who have spent a considerable amount of time in custody; these are essential components for successful reintegration in the community and therefore an important factor in protecting the public.

"To release these prisoners directly from a closed prison without the resettlement benefits of the open estate would undoubtedly lead to higher levels of post-release reoffending. The reoffending rates for those released from open prisons are low when compared to all prisoners released from custody in England and Wales."

What's it like in an open prison and how do you qualify for day release?

Conditions in open prisons differ between establishments. However, in most, prisoners have their own cells and can spend more time around the facility. There are also more activities and the opportunity to work in the community.

However, to qualify for day release, prisoners must adhere to strict rules laid out before being granted a licence. They are not able to just walk out of prison and the penalties for absconding are harsh.

To get into an open prison from a closed prison, a prison governor or prison authorities must undertake a risk assessment to work out if the convict qualifies for an open prison – things taken into account include prison record and previous absconding.

Once in prison, the person must then be granted another temporary release licence and have another risk assessment.

If they do not come back to the prison at the allocated time, they are considered to have absconded and will be arrested. They will be put back into closed prison and will be less eligible to return to an open prison in the future.

Are absconding rates increasing?

No. Absconding rates have fallen dramatically in the last 10 years – by about 85%. Also rates of prisoners committing crimes while on day release is minimal. In 2012, prisoners spent 485,000 days on day release. The offending rate was 0.005%.

Calls for stricter rules regarding open prisons and who can go on day release could threaten the rehabilitation and reintegration aspect that these facilities are set up to provide.

Earlier this year, the MoJ announced £2.4bn in cuts over 2015/2016. Responding to the cuts, Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "Ministers must heed the warning signs. Rising assault and suicide rates, fewer staff and less constructive activity, call into question the government's commitment to safety and decency. Slashing prison budgets and introducing harsher regimes while warehousing ever greater numbers overseen by fewer staff is no way to transform rehabilitation."