Escape figures cast shadow over jails privatisation: Internal documents prompt demands for rethink

THE Government's continuing prison privatisation programme has been called into question following concerns at the number of assaults and escapes in the private sector.

The Prison Service's internal security briefing shows that nearly a quarter of escapes from prison escort services have been from Group 4. It records that 32 of the 134 escapes from escorts to and from prison, police stations and courts from April to December last year were from the private security firm.

Further, Blakenhurst - one of Britain's two private prisons and run by UK Detention Services - tops the league for most adult assaults on staff and between inmates. Between April and October last year there were 26 assaults per 100 population - four times as many as Brixton which holds more than twice as many prisoners. There have also been two escapes.

''This is a poor start for prison privatisation and should make the Government rethink its policy,' said Harry Fletcher of the Prisons are Not for Profit campaign, supported by the nine trade unions involved. He said other attempts at privatisation within the service had proved a 'wasteful folly'. More than pounds 1m had been spent on consultation, but projects such as prison education, dog patrols, warehousing and distribution and prison shops had all collapsed, been abandoned or deemed unlawful.

Yesterday, a Prison Service spokeswoman defended the record of the private sector. She said figures for escapes from escorts did not include those from police custody. Group 4, which now runs 10 per cent of the escort service, had taken over a large number of police duties, and when these had been taken into account the security company performed 'better than average'. Similarly, Blakenhurst's policy of recording every minor incident distorted its record, she said.

It appears that privatisation is progressing apace. Last Friday - the deadline for companies to reveal their ideas for financing, building and running the planned six new jails - produced 'a very good response', according to the Prison Service. A spokesman would not say how many firms had applied.

The Prison Service is also close to deciding which two of the country's 'worst' prisons are to be put up for possible privatisation. Internal documents which show that jails such as Leeds, Norwich, Cardiff, Durham and Style have scored badly in key areas - numbers of escapes and assaults, the hours spent in useful activity and out of cells, and the costs - make them likely targets. But the unions say they are least likely to attract private interest.