Dangerous criminals run away from probation hostel

Fleming House, a building converted from a large Victorian house or several houses, pictured as the sky darkens with the windows brightly lit
Fleming House is one of about 100 hostels in England and Wales which house high-risk criminals [BBC]

An undercover investigation inside the Probation Service by the BBC has found serious failings in the supervision of violent and sex offenders.

Two dangerous convicted criminals ran away from a probation hostel in Kent during the six weeks a Panorama reporter was secretly filming there.

New figures obtained by the BBC show that offenders on probation in England and Wales have been charged with two killings and three sexual assaults every week on average.

The Ministry of Justice said: "Protecting the public is our top priority."

Reoffending rates have fallen from 31% to 24% since 2010, a ministry spokesperson added.

The reporter worked at Fleming House in Maidstone, a hostel run by the Probation Service which is home to about 30 high-risk offenders including murderers, paedophiles and rapists.

It is one of about 100 approved premises across England and Wales, which supervise about 2,000 criminals who are considered too dangerous to release straight into the community. These offenders live in the hostels for about three months after coming out of prison.

Our investigation found:

  • A sex offender and a man who stabbed a vulnerable person ran away from the hostel in separate incidents

  • The sex offender travelled across the country and was found only 11 miles from the home of a young woman who says he groomed her when she was a teenager

  • Widely used monitoring software that should enable the police to check what sex offenders do on their phones does not work on iPhones and some gaming devices

  • Offenders repeatedly missed alcohol and drugs tests because staff had forgotten to order plastic breathalyser tubes or because the hostel had run out of money for drugs testing

  • One member of staff at Fleming House falsified a resident's sign-in record, which one expert said could provide a false alibi if he were investigated for a crime

Fleming House has a history of problems: three years ago, a resident was jailed for killing a man who lived nearby and a serial sex offender also living there groomed a 13-year-old girl.

The sex offender who was able to run away from the hostel during Panorama’s secret filming was Anthony Bullman. He had been convicted of sexually assaulting a young woman in 2020 and has been assessed by the Probation Service as a danger to teenage girls.

Still from undercover footage showing Anthony Bullman, wearing a hoodie and baseball cap, in Fleming House
Anthony Bullman, who has a sexual assault conviction, also absconded from the hostel [BBC]

He had previously run away from the same hostel when he was on probation two years earlier. Police suspected then that he had met a 16-year-old girl whom he had befriended online.

On that occasion, he was eventually arrested for breaking a ban on talking to under-18s and temporarily recalled to prison, but was not charged.

Like all residents, Bullman had restrictions on what he was allowed to do while on probation. These restrictions are called licence conditions and are set in prison, according to the risk an offender poses to the public.

If the restrictions are broken, the offender can be sent back to prison.

As part of his licence conditions, Bullman was required to sign in four times a day at the hostel’s office. He was routinely late or did not bother to sign in, however.

One evening when Bullman was 20 minutes late, a junior member of staff – known as a residential worker – asked the Panorama reporter to falsify a sign-in so it appeared as though Bullman had arrived on time.

“Just write him in for seven. I’m not bothered today, I’ve worked too hard already,” he said.

When the reporter didn’t do it, the staff member falsified the record himself.

The BBC's undercover reporter, Max, a man with brown hair and a beard, walking down the street with his hands in the pockets of his jacket
Panorama's undercover reporter spent six weeks working in the hostel [BBC]

Philip Wheatley, the director general of the National Offender Management Service from 2008 to 2010, viewed Panorama’s footage. He said the falsification of records could give a "false alibi" if the offender was subsequently investigated for an offence.

“It’s crucial that recording is done properly,” he said, adding that sign-in failures by a known absconder needed to be logged and passed back to the probation officer.

Two weeks later, Bullman ran away from Fleming House.

The Panorama reporter found torn-up pieces of paper in Bullman’s room with the details of a convicted stalker and a nickname, “Penguin”, which a colleague suggested belonged to a sex offender.

Bullman was eventually arrested by police after being on the run for two days. He was found just 11 miles from the home of a vulnerable woman who says he “groomed” her when she was 17.

He was sent back to prison for breaching his licence conditions.

A Freedom of Information request by Panorama to the Ministry of Justice reveals the risk recently released criminals can pose to the public.

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Panorama - Undercover: Can Probation Keep Us Safe?

Panorama goes undercover in the Probation Service, revealing how easy it is for convicted criminals to go on the run and that drug tests and regular room searches are not being carried out.

Watch on iPlayer (UK only) or BBC One at 21:00 BST on Thursday

Pink line

Offenders on probation have faced 800 charges for murder or manslaughter between 2016 and 2022, and more than 1,000 charges for rape or sexual assault.

There were eight convictions for murder or manslaughter every month, on average, and six for rape or sexual assault between 2015 and 2021.

At Fleming House, the Panorama reporter was on duty when another offender - with a conviction for a violent assault - ran away.

Jordan Battams was sentenced to 12 years in prison for grievous bodily harm after he tortured and slashed the face of an autistic man.

He was released on licence after eight years but was later recalled to prison after absconding. Almost as soon as he returned to Fleming House during Panorama’s undercover filming, staff said at a team meeting that they suspected he might run away again.

Battams had only minimal restrictions while on probation: a curfew of 21:30 and an alcohol tag, which should have been used to monitor whether he had been drinking but had not been fitted by the tagging company.

Six days after he arrived at Fleming House, Battams failed to return in time for his curfew.

A member of staff was secretly filmed calling him on his phone and saying: "Hello, is that Jordan? You should be back here for half past nine. Just give us a rough idea how long you think you'll be."

The employee then said to the undercover reporter that "he's under the influence" so he was in trouble, adding that "he's with a group of people, telling me to 'calm down'".

Still from undercover footage of Jordan Battams, wearing a jacket and a grey sweatshirt, inside Fleming House
Police say Jordan Battams was arrested for theft. He was also suspected to have sexually harassed a teenager [BBC]

Staff consulted a senior probation officer who decided that Battams should be sent back to prison. But by that time, he had already been arrested for theft, according to an update from police to Fleming House. A further report said there was also an allegation he had been sexually harassing a teenage girl.

Battams was not charged with any offences but was sent back to prison for breaching the terms of his licence.

Julie, the mother of the man Battams attacked in 2011, said it was "unbelievable" that he had been able to abscond. "The system is broken," she said.

Battams told the BBC: “I was recalled from Fleming House in January this year after getting drunk and acting stupid.”

He added that he did not get an alcohol monitoring tag, which he said he had asked for as a deterrent.

During its investigation, Panorama also learned of a potentially critical failure in the way that the internet use of some sex offenders is monitored while they are on probation.

Many of them should have special software installed on their phones when they leave prison so the police can monitor their online activity.

But one police officer who appeared in the secret filming told the BBC's undercover reporter that the software did not work on iPhones.

He added: "I don't like to say it out loud, so please keep it to yourself. It doesn't work on Apple."

The police officer said the law "needs to be changed" so that registered sex offenders who have committed offences online "have a phone of our choosing with our software on it".

The software, which the BBC is not naming for security reasons, also does not work on many gaming devices which can browse the web.

Since 2020, more than half of the UK’s police forces have used the software, including West Yorkshire Police and the Metropolitan Police.

The software provider said that “due to the access restrictions posed by certain device operating systems such as Apple iPhones and gaming consoles, these are not ordinarily permitted for use” by offenders “under court orders but are the subject of police risk assessment”.

Kent Police said it “uses a range of methods to monitor registered sex offenders” including "monitoring software, unannounced visits and digital forensic examinations”.

Still from undercover footage showing a hand wearing a blue plastic glove holding some white pills
Pills were found in one resident's room but the hostel ran out of money for drug tests for three months [BBC]

Panorama repeatedly asked the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice about the software and ensuring adequate offender monitoring. They did not answer Panorama’s questions, saying it was a matter for the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC).

The NPCC said the police use “detailed risk management plans tailored to each individual”.

The secret filming also captured serious failures in drug and alcohol testing. Many residents are supposed to be drug tested frequently or breathalysed twice a week, because the offences for which they were jailed were linked to drug or alcohol use.

But for long periods alcohol breath tests were not possible because the hostel repeatedly ran out of plastic tubes for the machine. One violent criminal, who should have been tested three times a week, went two months without a test.

Another offender who had been jailed for sexually assaulting a woman while he was drunk, should have been tested every day but went three weeks without being breathalysed.

During secret filming, the manager of Fleming House said he had been told by "management" it was too expensive to test residents regularly, after the government moved from saliva tests to more accurate, but costly, urine tests.

Fleming House ran out of money to buy drug test kits for three months. Even the residents were surprised.

"If I had a joint last week, by the time you piss-tested me, that would be gone," one said.

Mr Wheatley, the former probation boss, said the service was "desperately short of staff".

"It's important the government funds services that are meant to protect the public properly and don't leave them floundering with too much workload and not enough staff to do it," he said.

The Ministry of Justice said: "We're investing £155m a year extra into the Probation Service to deliver tougher supervision, reduce caseloads and recruit thousands more staff to keep communities safer."

The Panorama reporter saw serious failures but also some staff doing their best to protect the public under heavy workloads. By the end of his time at Fleming House, he said: “If I was doing this just as my job, I don't know if I’d have coped with it.”

One worker said: “It's broken, the system. If Joe Public knew, they'd be up in arms. But it's so broken.”