Jail stores on supermarket shopping list

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The Independent Online
SUPERMARKETS may be offered the chance to run stores in prisons in an effort to give inmates better service and choice.

The Prison Service is set to offer contracts for 103 prison shops where inmates are allowed to buy tobacco, toiletries and some luxury items. Private keep-fit instructors could also be invited to run physical education and sports classes in more than 30 prison gyms.

But news of the privatisation plan comes as the Prison Service has been forced to consider ending its first experiment of allowing a private firm to run a business within a jail.

The American-owned company Wackenhut (UK) has run the industrial unit at Coldingley prison, in Surrey, for the past year. Inmates are paid to make signposts and provide laundry and engineering services.

The scheme ran into controversy when it was revealed the firm was given a pounds 100,000 loan to buy raw materials and was allowed free gas and electricity worth around pounds 40,000. Prison Service critics said jail bosses were desperate for the scheme to succeed so similar projects to be set up at other jails.

The Wackenhut project is designed to improve the profitability of prison industries by bringing in private-business efficiency. But sources at the prison have revealed that the firm has found it difficult to win contracts and is understood to be making losses of pounds 40,000 a month. It has asked to renegotiate its contract, which began in November last year, butPrison Service officials are reluctant to give the company another pounds 500,000 a year.

Nevertheless, the Prison Service is looking at pressing ahead with privatisation plans in other areas.

Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, criticised the development. "Just as they are running into trouble with the privatised prison industry they are trying to privatise the gyms and the prison shops, which have always been non-profit-making ventures."

The prison shops - known as "canteens" - could generate a turnover in excess of pounds 20m a year. Typically, prisoners who do duties such as cleaning earn around pounds 10-a-week which they can spend in the canteen. Some jails have experimented with "enhanced wages" of between pounds 60 and pounds 134 a week for full-time jobs making food or working on the prison farm.

However, the revenue generated by the shops is unlikely to be large enough to tempt Britain's supermarket giants.

A Prison Service spokesman said privatisation of the canteens and gymnasia was under consideration but no final decision had been taken.

He confirmed that Wackenhut (UK) and senior officials were re-negotiating the future of the business but said details were the subject of commercial confidentiality.