Government bans company from allowing charity to visit private prisons

The MOJ told G4S to retract an invitation issued to the Howard League to visit prisons run by the firm at Birmingham and Oakwood in Staffordshire

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The Independent Online

A company running two private prisons was banned by the Government from inviting a penal reform charity to see the work they are doing to improve conditions behind bars.

In a bizarre move, officials at the Ministry of Justice have told G4S to retract an invitation issued to the Howard League to visit prisons run by the firm at Birmingham and Oakwood in Staffordshire. 

In a letter to Frances Crook, the head of the charity the MoJ said it did not feel the visits “would be appropriate at this time” and said it had “informed G4S they should withdraw the invitation”.

The letter was sent by Ian Blakeman, director of custodial services at the National Offender Management Service, and suggested the reason for the ban was that Ms Crook and the Howard League had previously criticised the privatisation of prison work. In a statement issued after the letter was sent, a Prison Service spokesperson added: “Groups and individuals are of course entitled to express their opinions. Those who irresponsibly misrepresent the situation by making inaccurate comments, and who fail to correct them when their inaccuracy is pointed out to them, are not a priority for access to prisons.”

But Ms Crook said she was “bemused” by the decision – especially as the invitation had emanated from G4S. “It is an amazing thing when the Government manages to get G4S and the Howard League on the same side.”

She also believed the decision had come from the “top” of the MoJ and in particular the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling who, she said, was not interested in having a “mature discussion” about prison conditions. “He has a very emotional response to criticism that is very unhelpful,” she said. “The Howard League has opposed the principle of privatising prisons since it was first mooted in 1992. The concern is ethical, based on the distaste of making a profit from punishment. The most dreadful thing we can do to a person is take away their freedom and that responsibility must rest with the state.” But she added the charity was still interested in having a debate and seeing first-hand what G4S was doing in the prisons they ran.

In a statement the MoJ said organisations and individuals independent of the Ministry of Justice and Prison Service were often given access to prisons. “It is absolutely right prisons face significant media scrutiny and we welcome public debate on the issues they face.” But added the Howard League was not a priority for access because of inaccurate comments. The ban was criticised on Twitter by MPs from the left and right. Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan said: “Blocking Frances Crook visiting jails is shocking.” Ex-Tory MP Mark Reckless called it: “Disgraceful.”