Major failures led to accidental release of serial rapist, report finds

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Significant failings by prison and probation staff, and a policy of not recalling high risk prisoners to alleviate pressure on a growing prison population, saw serial rapist Joseph McCann mistakenly freed from jail to attack 11 women and children, a review has found.

The damning report by HM Inspectorate of Probation highlights eight missed opportunities to recall McCann, 34, a high risk IPP (imprisonment for public protection) prisoner before he was released, following a burglary offence, in February 2019.

Two months later, fuelled by cocaine and vodka, he carried out a series of rape, sexual assault and kidnapping offences against victims aged between 11 and 71 years. He was given 33 life sentences and jailed for a minimum term of 30 years in December.

Chief inspector of probation, Justin Russell, said “major failings” saw McCann’s case managed by an “unstable team” lacking experience and suffering from “poor management oversight, high workloads, poor performance and high staff turnover”.

Police had shared information in 2003 that suggested McCann might pose a risk of sexual harm and exploitation to teenage girls. Letters with disturbing content indicating he posed a risk of sexual harm, had been intercepted by the prison he was held in.

Ten probation staff had supervised him over an 11-year period. But probation staff, who had “intolerable” workloads, “did not have a clear picture of who they were dealing with” because the available information was spread across several criminal justice recording systems, and lost in handovers between staff, said Russell.

“Most worryingly, prison staff did not share information about the risk posed by McCann proactively with NPS staff responsible for his management.”

McCann was freed at a time when probation staff were under pressure to adhere to a 2017 strategy demanding alternatives to prison recall in all cases because “the prisons are full”, one NPS staff member told the review.

“The strategy’s purpose was to reduce the number of recalled prisoners, and in doing so, reduce overall pressures on a rapidly growing prison population,” the report stated. The clear message to frontline staff was that recall was to be avoided where possible.

Russell called for the NPS to set up a system to “capture and review” decisions not to recall individuals to prison.

Once released, McCann was allowed to stay with family because of high demand for beds in approved premises with greater supervision.

McCann was described as a “complex and dangerous offender who can be intimidating and controlling, yet was able to present himself positively to staff”. Offender managers described him as “menacing and manipulative”.

He had a string of convictions and received his first term behind bars at the age of 15. While he had no convictions for sexual offences, he did have a history of violence and threats towards his partners.

A previous review found he should have been recalled to prison after he committed the burglary while on licence for an earlier offence. Instead he was handed a fixed-term prison sentence and released automatically half-way through, without parole board involvement.

The life-long impact of the attacks on his victims was “worsened by the knowledge he could have been in prison when the offences occurred”, the report said. “If the right actions had been taken by the probation service, he would have been kept in prison until the Parole Board determined he was safe to release.”

The public was entitled to expect “that the authorities will do their job properly, that is to take all reasonable action to keep risk to a minimum in order to protect actual and potential victims. That did not happen in this case”.

“Mistakes and poor judgment by several individuals meant that McCann remained in the community when he could, and should, have been recalled to prison.”

Among key recommendations, the report called for probation staff to have access to all relevant information about individuals, including from historical case records, for prisons to share all relevant information, and for sufficient bed capacity at approved premises for high risk offenders.

It also called for the probation service to ensure a new recall framework is fully embedded in practice, the introduction of processes to review recall decisions, and improved staff training.

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