In a snub that will have infuriated Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, senior staff at Blakenhurst prison near Worcester had refused to change the locks .
For the first time, the prison service was forced to invoke powers under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, and Al Papps, the Prison Service's director of operations for prisons in the north, ordered that the locks be replaced at an estimated cost of over pounds 200,000.
George Howarth, Labour's prisons spokesman, said he was appalled that the money had been paid by the taxpayer and not by United Kingdom Detention Services (UKDS), the private company that runs the jail.
He said: "This episode shows that private prisons are prepared to compromise security for the sake of profits and the prison service is making the public pick up the bill."
The commercial cost of the re-fit would have almost wiped out the company's profits.
UKDS declared a profit of pounds 380,000 last year. The company will have also been anxious to avoid the humiliation of publicity.
The locks at the pounds 40m showpiece jail have already been replaced several times.
On one embarrassing occasion in 1993, the then governor, David Brooke, was photographed in the local newspaper unlocking a cell for visitors. Blown-up pictures of his hand were later circulated by the inmates so that key copies could be made. The locks had to be re-fitted at an estimated cost of pounds 85,000.
Seven months later, another 130 new locks had to be installed after a set of keys was stolen by inmates. The incident led to criticism of the jail by Judge Stephen Tumim, then chief inspector of prisons.
This time UKDS was not prepared to pay out after an internal investigation failed to find evidence that any keys had been stolen or copied.
An inquiry was launched last week after an anonymous tip-off, placed in a prison suggestion box, indicated that prisoners had obtained a replica key.
Soon afterwards, the mother of an inmate claimed that her son was being bullied by prisoners who believed that he had a set of jail keys and wanted him to hand them over.
Mr Papps told Blakenhurst bosses that there had been a "key compromise" and that the locks would have to be replaced. UKDS disagreed.
After the invocation of special powers, teams of locksmiths employed in the works offices of neighbouring jails were drafted in to fit new locks.
Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "It is outrageous that the taxpayer has been forced to bale UKDS out. It was their security compromise and they should pay for it."
UKDS said: "A decision was taken to re-lock the prison on the basis of intelligence received that the security of the prison may have been compromised."
A spokesman confirmed that the company was not paying for the work.Reuse content