MURDERERS can now be housed in the open prison at Appleton Thorn Cross Youth Offenders Institute, the Warrington Guardian can reveal.

The Ministry of Justice has confirmed the category of prisoner allowed to be held at Thorn Cross has now been changed to permit ‘lifers’.

It means criminals sentenced to life in prison for the most heinous crimes like murder, manslaughter and arson, can be moved to the facility on Arley Road.

The prison is close to residential houses, Appleton Thorn Primary School, and a pub.

Residents in the area say they are ‘shocked and appalled’ by the changes, with ‘real concerns for our safety’.

The Moj says any prisoner must be risk assessed by a parole board before being transferred.

Clr Brian Axcell (Appleton - LD) said the threat of escape from the open prison would worry neighbours.

He said: “The residents of Appleton have been very understanding and supportive of the prison.

“This is a step too far.

“The concern is people that have committed serious offences could leave that prison.

“We are talking about murderers and violent criminals.

“Open prison should only be used for prisoners who do not pose a threat to the population.

“I can’t see that this is acceptable for people with a life sentence.

“In any open prison you think they are for the lower end of offending.

“I think people will be astonished and the community should have been informed.”

A spokesman for the Moj said transfers are only possible if an inmate is within three years of the minimum term of the life sentence ending.

The changes do not relate to sex offenders, who cannot be moved to Appleton Thorn YOI.

A prison service spokesman said: "All those located in open prisons have been rigorously risk assessed to be deemed suitable for these conditions.

“Anyone whose behaviour gives cause for concern can be returned to a closed prison immediately."

Appleton Thorn YOI was originally built as a unit for juvenile criminals.

However, age restrictions were removed in August 2012 to allow adults to be imprisoned there.

Clr Paul Kennedy (Hatton, Stretton and Walton - CON) said: “Most people will think inmates are 18-years-old, have got into a bit of trouble, and are trying to avoid a life of crime.

“It’s important people know you are talking about the most serious offences in society.”