Howard may turn prisons over to private sector

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The Independent Online
Controversial proposals for a huge prison privatisation programme, including transferring entire jails, inmates' health care and drug testing, are being considered by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary.

Internal Home Office documents seen by the Independent contain plans for the private sector to carry out major refurbishment to existing jails and then take over their management. About 25 of the country's 134 prisons are due for modernisation and refurbishment and the report recommends that at least one of those should be carried out by the private sector in the coming year - the first time a fully operational, rather than a new jail, would be taken over by a private company.

Inviting private health companies to take over prisoners' medical care, drug companies to take over drug testing, and introducing private catering, workshops, and officers' housing are also being examined.

But the move will inevitably run into fierce opposition from prison governors and officers. The report warns of the "major risk" of the impact on industrial relations of a policy "which will lead to the private sector replacing Prison Service jobs". Previous plans to put out certain existing jails for market testing had been put on the back-burner in the face of a legal challenge by the Prison Officers' Association and by the disruption the threat of privatisation had caused.

However, the new privatisation push has come from the Treasury, under its Private Finance Initiative. And sources suggested yesterday that the spiralling costs of the burgeoning and changing prison population - expected to top 56,000 by the year 2000 - will mean that some of the proposals, set out in a feasibility study by consultants, Coopers and Lybrand, are certain to be accepted.

The report states that under the PFI rules it was doubtful there could be split responsibility for a jail - with the private contractor responsible for engineering, energy supply and maintenance and the prison service for inmates

Further Treasury reluctance to fund major rebuilding programmes is spelt out in another internal prison service document which highlights the need to make substantial alterations to the prison estate to cater for growing numbers of serious offenders, women, and young people.

With the Treasury keeping a firm grip on spending, private sector money may provide the only source of the cash the service needs.

Only a threat to security or increased costs are likely to defeat the proposals.

Harry Fletcher, of the Prisons are Not for Profit Campaign, said: "The unions representing those who work in prisons believe that the state should be solely responsible for the incarceration and health of prisoners. It would be morally wrong if shareholders should benefit from the ill-health of inmates."