Home Affairs Correspondent
The country's last "glasshouse" - the old soldiers' name for the military jail - may be privatised as well as being used to give Britain's young criminals a taste of Army-style punishment and discipline, it emerged yesterday.
The Ministry of Defence said that a feasibility study for bringing in a private company instead of the Army to run the Military Corrective Training Centre (MCTC) at Colchester was under way.
Home Office sources confirmed that privatisation was one area under negotiation between both ministries over the Home Office proposals to hold persistent young offenders alongside errant soldiers, sailors and airmen and women.
Details of the controversial plans by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, were revealed in leaked Cabinet correspondence on Wednesday.
The scheme goes beyond plans for military-style "boot camps" in America.
Home Office officials have already warned that such establishments are expensive failures using humiliating and degrading tactics which could cause riots. They neither divert young offenders from crime nor reduce overcrowding in mainstream prisons.
But yesterday Opposition and prison reform groups greeted the proposal with derision.
David Clark, Shadow Defence Secretary, said the "gimmicky" idea had more to do with earning applause at the Conservative Party conference in October than tackling Tory failure on crime.
"Army prisons are not the place for civilian criminals.
"The Army should not be regarded as either a probation office or a depository for the difficulties of society in general," said Dr Clark.
"It is unhelpful and damaging to military discipline to mix civilians and soldiers when many soldiers will be returning to their regiment."
Paul Cavadino, chairman of the Penal Affairs Consortium, described the "glasshouse" proposal as "ludicrous".
Referring back to the failure of the "short, sharp shock" system, he said: "Drills, parades and inspections may produce better soldiers but all the evidence shows that such regimes do nothing to reduce further crime by young offenders."
He said soldiers put into Army corrective training centres had normally committed breaches of military discipline rather than criminal offences.
They had incentives to conform, including the prospect of resuming and building on their careers after release.
"In contrast, young offenders are released frequently to unemployment and the same inner-city environment that led them into crime in the first place."
Nevertheless, Mr Howard will be anxious to press ahead with plans to brighten his law and order credentials. These have been tarnished by other leaked documents, showing that plans for the first boot camp were far from the rigorous, punishing regime he had promised.
Colchester MCTC, in the Essex garrison town, has the reputation of an "at the double" dawn-to-dusk regime. One former airman, dismissed from the services because he was gay and who served two weeks at the centre, described its regime as "hell".
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