Damning inquiries push prisons towards privatisation

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Five "failing" prisons could be privatised because of the appalling treatment of inmates uncovered in a series of official reports to be published soon.

Five "failing" prisons could be privatised because of the appalling treatment of inmates uncovered in a series of official reports to be published soon.

The reports by the chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, describe one jail as a "sick prison" and another as "a stain on the service".

The findings come as the Commission for Racial Equality prepares to launch a formal investigation this week into racism in the Prison Service.

The Home Office minister Paul Boateng has called some failing jails a "disgrace" and has warned officials that market-testing prisons for possible privatisation is "here to stay and there is going to be more of it". From the reports, prison chiefs appear to have ignored some of Sir David's warnings about the prisons.

One published today on Chelmsford prison in Essex is his third critical inspection of the institution, opened 172 years ago. Sir David said: "HMP Chelmsford is a sick prison suffering from chronic deficiencies." He accused staff of "obviously putting their own ease and comfort before their responsibilities".

When the chief inspector visited Chelmsford in 1998 he was furious that officers failed to respond when he tested the emergency call buttons to help prisoners in distress. Christopher Edwards, a remand prisoner, was stamped to death by his schizophrenic cellmate on his first night at the prison in 1994, despite ringing the bell for help. In his latest inspection, Sir David was concerned to find that vulnerable prisoners were still being treated worse than other inmates.

Another report, on Birmingham prison, is regarded by inspectors as Sir David's most critical. The Victorian prison is grossly overcrowded and allows prisoners 15 hours of work and education a week.

The prison that most concerns Mr Boateng is Brixton in south London, which is already being market-tested. An audit by the Prison Service's race adviser found that black prisoners and staff were being harassed.

Sir David says it is severely short of resources. He also found some staff and managers were "not doing a day's job for a day's pay". He refers to wards on the healthcare unit as the "worst in this country".

Worryingly, he found staff were putting false entries on forms designed to ensure suicide-risk prisoners were observed every 15-minutes.

Sir David has been particularly shocked by "awful" conditions at two young offenders' institutions. Brinsford YOI, near Wolverhampton, is described in an unpublished report as "a stain on the service". It has an unusually high rate of assaults and positive drug tests. Sir David was also disturbed by conditions at Stoke Heath YOI, Shropshire.

Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "The solution is not privatisation but proper funding. All these failing prisons have suffered from massive under-investment."

The director general of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, said he had asked the chief inspector to look at Birmingham and Brinsford because of his own concerns.But Mr Narey also pointed to seven recent inspections - including at Leeds prison and Whitemoor high-security jail in Cambridgeshire - that had generated praise.