When the prison guards weren't out shopping for smoked salmon the IRA gunmen fancied, they followed the rules: no searches, no taps on cell doors before noon - and no forgetting little extras like the oven-fresh bread.

Even still, six prisoners decided to leave.An inquiry into the armed breakout Sept. 9 from the top-security Whitemoor Prison reveals pampering, luxury and bungling right out of the Keystone Kops.

And it just keeps getting worse. Tony Pearson, operational director for the Prison Service, admitted Tuesday that it was "unacceptable" that a woman who killed her great-aunt with an ax had been allowed out of another prison on a 100-mile taxi trip so she could go shopping in Leeds.

The governing Conservatives, the self-styled party of law and order, are blushing.

Home Secretary Michael Howard, a right-winger responsible for prisons, got big applause at a party conference by declaring: "Prison works."

But clutching the report released Monday on the breakout from Whitemoor in rural Cambridgeshire, 110 miles north of London, Howard struggled to sound tough in the House of Commons - and to be heard above jeers and laughter.

He acknowledged the report by retired police chief Sir John Woodcock revealed a "dreadful state of affairs" - and said he was tightening up.

He brushed aside demands for his resignation.

"Will he at least claim to be guilty but insane?" chimed opposition lawmaker Tony Banks.

Hints of the lavish lifestyle leaked before the escape. In July, a prison inspector reported that the guards at Whitemoor were in awe of their fearsome charges who, in turn, treated them with "tolerant but friendly condescension."

The report called the night that five convicted Irish Republican Army prisoners and another convict scaled two walls and cut through a fence while the guards played Scrabble as "a disaster waiting to happen."

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"So many things were wrong that the escape could have taken place on any day of any week with the same chance of success," commented Woodcock.

Outside the prison, the escapees shot and wounded a guard who raised the alarm. Four were recaptured quickly and police dogs found the other two within a few hours hiding in a ditch.

As well as two pistols, the men had a 30-foot rope ladder made from torn mattresses, flashlights, and an array of tools - a do-it-yourself escape outfit made behind lace curtains in the hobbies room.

Two sets of lace curtains were supplied after prisoners grumbled about lack of privacy. Body searches of visitors stopped after they complained about that.

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