Threat to privatise two old 'failing' prisons

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Two of Britain's oldest prisons are threatened with privatisation after being denounced in the House of Commons yesterday for failing standards.

Beverley Hughes, Prisons minister, said Leicester and Reading jails would be given six months to improve or be taken out of the public sector.

Reading's 157-year-old jail has 265 young offenders and remand prisoners. It is best known for Oscar Wilde's depiction of incarceration in Ballad of Reading Gaol, after his time there in 1895. Leicester Category B prison, which looks like a medieval fortress, was built in 1825 half a mile from the centre of the city and holds 360.

An earlier performance-testing exercise of the heavily criticised Brixton prison in south London produced no offer of interest from private firms. Ms Hughes said: "The emphasis on performance testing is on pulling up the poorest performers to the standards of our best. There will be no compromise on this, and staff, governors and all of us concerned with improving standards must work together to this end.

"I have asked the director general [of prisons] for proposals on how we can create incentives for, and reward, highly performing prisons, giving them greater flexibility and freedom to manage."

But Brian Caton, general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, said: "It is clear to all officers at Leicester and Reading that their establishments have two common difficulties, years of under- investment and years of poor management. The Prison Service and Government have failed to address recruitment and retention problems."