Threat to privatise 'failing' Brixton jail

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The Independent Online

Home Office minister Paul Boateng said yesterday that Brixton prison was a "failing institution" and faced being privatised within a year. Mr Boateng said the prison's standards of performance "simply cannot be tolerated".

Home Office minister Paul Boateng said yesterday that Brixton prison was a "failing institution" and faced being privatised within a year. Mr Boateng said the prison's standards of performance "simply cannot be tolerated".

Brixton's Governor, Bob Chapman, admitted the seriousness of the problems, but said the jail was being held to ransom by a hard core of militant prison officers refusing to accept modern working practices. Privatisation of the prison would mean that about 250 staff would face losing their jobs or being transferred.

The crisis at Brixton follows a snap visit to the jail by Mr Boateng last month, after reports that prisoners were attempting to kill themselves.

The minister said that although improvements had been made in healthcare, he was deeply concerned by other failings in the way prisoners were treated and public money was squandered at the prison.

He said: "I have no ideological compunction about saying that if the private sector can deliver better, more effective regimes in a safe and secure context for prisoners, then the private sector will be given its head to deliver that."

A fundamental review of staff levels, resources, regimes and facilities would be carried out and the jail would be given 12 months to improve, Mr Boateng said. "No one should doubt that if within 12 months... the prison has not met the objectives set... Brixton will be subjected to market testing."

Mr Boateng said prisoners in Brixton cost the public £22,930 a year, compared to £16,300 at Leeds and £14,000 at Birmingham, which are similar jails. Yet Brixton inmates spend only 9.3 hours a day outside cells on purposeful activities, compared to 14.7 hours at Birmingham.

Mr Chapman said he would "fight tooth and nail" to keep the jail in the public sector, but that its performance dependedon a change in attitude of a "small minority" of staff who were "locked in the past".

He said: "If [officers'] loyalties to their old trade union or older members of staff are greater than to the management or the prison, of course we might as well give up."

But Brian Caton, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, said Brixton's problems were the result of "managerial decisions". He said a decision to change the prison's catchment area had resulted in large numbers of mentally disordered inmates being housed at the jail.