Prisoners to be bar-coded

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MANAGERS of an American-backed private jail firm are to fit inmates at a Worcestershire prison with electromagnetic bracelets, so they can be scanned like supermarket groceries.

The tags will be part of what penal reformers say is an informal system of punishments at Britain's latest private jail, Blakenhurst prison near Redditch, which opened last week.

UK Detention Services, a consortium of American and British companies, said the bracelets would enable the 649 inmates to be tracked as they move about.

Officers carrying bar-code scanners - no different from those used at shop check-outs - will regularly 'swipe' the bracelets once a prisoner leaves his cell block. The scanners pass information on each inmate into the jail's computer system. Prisoners' photographs will be attached to the wrist bands to make sure inmates do not swap bracelets.

A consortium spokesman said that the technology had 'great advantages for us in management terms'. 'If someone goes into an education class for example, the tutor will just run a scanner over the bracelet,' he explained. 'Staff will then be able to get an instant computer print-out of where anyone is at any one time.'

He accepted there would probably 'have to be a certain amount of selling of the idea' to the prisoners. 'Inmates might resent them but they will find they make their lives easier. If mum comes to visit, we will be able to find a prisoner without a lot of looking.'

Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: 'This move is demeaning and dehumanising. It is inconsistent with taking prisoners' rights seriously.'

Penal reformers are also worried about use of the bracelets to limit prisoners' activities. They will be part of a system of 'informal punishments', they allege.

The charge is politically sensitive because the Home Office's prison privatisation plan does not give commercial companies the right to punish inmates. Quasi legal disciplinary hearings remain in the hands of Home Office 'controllers' at Blakenhurst and the privately managed Wolds jail in Humberside.

UK Detention Services denied it planned to punish prisoners. It had statutory duties to provide services to all prisoners and was 'not in a position to invoke any kind of sanction'.

However, its spokesman accepted that the system used to encourage prisoners to work and learn inside the jail would include a threat to withdraw 'the extra pleasures which are available' from unco-operative inmates if they 'do not play the game'.

The spokesman said: 'A prisoner has the choice of whether he gets up in the morning; whether he attends classes on time. There's not a lot we can do if he lies in bed. But he won't get any of the extra pleasures available.'

Mr Shaw said it was a system of punishments in all but name. 'It is a way of circumventing the formal disciplinary procedure which allows a prisoner to know the case against him and appeal.

UK Detention Services is a joint venture between the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which runs 21 prisons in the US and Australia, and the British firms John Mowlem and Sir Robert McAlpine.