Rebellion and drugs shake new private jail

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BRITAIN'S newest private jail has been disrupted by drug-taking among prisoners who are refusing to obey orders. It has also emerged that one of the jail's senior nurses had a criminal record.

Managers of Wackenhut, the American penal corporation that runs Doncaster prison, play down the significance of the incidents, saying they are no worse than problems in other jails.

But senior prison governors warn that the Government is following a 'high-risk strategy' by allowing inexperienced officers to run a jail that may soon house 400 prisoners above its original capacity.

The worst trouble began when inmates in the prison, which opened a month ago, stole drugs bought for the hospital pharmacy.

A spokesman for the managers said that the drugs were taken from a trolley in the hospital wing. Officers searched the jail but found nothing. Five prisoners began behaving oddly, and were given urine tests and sent out of the jail for hospital treatment.

The prison hospital had already lost a senior nurse after it was learnt that he had a criminal record. The man, who had previously worked at the Ashworth special hospital for mentally disturbed offenders, was dismissed when his conviction was revealed in a routine vetting of the prison's new staff.

Doncaster's managers have deliberately avoided hiring experienced prison officers, nearly all of them members of the Prison Officers Association, and have recruited instead non- union local people, including redundant miners.

Their first taste of dealing with difficult prisoners came when a 'substantial number' - between 30 and 40, according to some reports - refused to leave the television room to go to their cells at 'lights out', insisting on watching extra-time in a World Cup match. It took an hour and a half for staff to regain control.

Brendan O'Friel, chairman of the Prison Governors' Association, warned yesterday that the private jail could be heading for a major disturbance.

'We have told ministers we are very concerned about the rate at which new prisoners are being brought into the jail,' he said. 'The company wants to get as many prisoners as quickly as possible because then they get more money. It is a very high-risk strategy for the Government to allow commercial pressures to dictate policy.'

The contract between the Home Office and the jail managers shows that Doncaster's 'certified' level of accommodation - the maximum it can safely hold - is 770. But an 'overcrowding option' allows the managers to take up to 1,169 prisoners. After its first month of operation Doncaster's population has risen to 447.

The contract also shows that the Home Office is willing to tolerate a high level of violence. Penalty clauses, which would reduce the managers' fees, will not be operated until there have been more than 77 assaults on staff and 148 assaults on prisoners by other prisoners in a year. Prison governors and officers are infuriated by this approach.

Their concern will be reflected in a forthcoming report from Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, which is expected to criticise Home Office policy of allowing numbers to build up rapidly in new jails.

Judge Tumim will say that riots during the first year of operation at Blakenhurst private prison in Worcestershire were caused by the jail taking too many prisoners too quickly.

Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said that the danger with private prisons was that the most experienced people in the jail were the hardened criminals. 'What we are seeing at Doncaster goes beyond teething problems,' he said. 'You cannot expect new staff to learn on the job.'

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