UNDER-FIRE prison chiefs who last night defended the policy of placing sex offenders in a Gwent open prison were warned by town councillors that they are creating a "time bomb".

Prescoed governor Phillip Morgan and operations director for the prison service in Wales John May fielded questions at a meeting of Usk town council last night.

After being told the policy of housing sex offenders at the open prison would continue as normal, - despite last week's escape of child rapist Robert Neil Stokes, 35 - furious councillors demanded to know if security was going to be beefed up.

The escape last Wednesday prompted a large-scale police search and put thousands of school pupils in Monmouthshire and Newport on alert.

Councillor Alec Leahwood spoke of a "time bomb" in the making if sex offenders remained at Prescoed, and asked: "Is this a suitable town for a prison like this?"

Mr Morgan insisted that risk assessments run on sex offenders who are in line for a transfer to Prescoed were "sound", but highlighted the need for the prison to remain 'open' in character.

The only systems in place are cameras, and alarms on doors, he said. "I don't protect the public by keeping them behind a wall, I protect the public by working with them on making sure they are less likely to offend when they are released," he said.

He told the meeting that prisoners were less likely to re-offend if they went through a resettlement programme.

He said contingency plans were "fully activated" last Wednesday, with a "swift response" by police.

The Home Office aim is to accommodate up to 40 sex offenders in Prescoed. There are currently seven other sex offenders there.

The mayor of Usk, councillor Kay Peacock, said that the town council backed the thousands of residents who want to see the policy reversed.

"The council remains formally opposed to the policy of transferring sex offenders to Prescoed," she said.

Chair of Usk Residents' Action Group, Paul Starling, also addressed the meeting.

He told members that the "dangerous" policy had to be stopped "before a child is killed."

* A public meeting to discuss the issue will be held at Usk Memorial Hall tomorrow night at 7pm.