Commenting on Preston prison, Judge Stephen Tumim, in one of his most critical reports, which is published today, concludes: 'In Preston it was as if nothing had changed since the 1960s.'
He blames part of the problem on 'acrimonious' industrial relations between the prison officers' union and management, and goes on to suggest that the situation has become so difficult that the only solution may be privatisation and consequent break-up of the union.
Judge Tumim says: 'Establishments with impoverished regimes and poor conditions, which fail to gain the co-operation of the majority of staff to improvements, may lend themselves to being taken over by private companies, particularly if the cost of their operation is disproportionate to the performance delivered. Conditions and the regime at Preston must be improved . . .'
The Prison Service is considering putting two or three state-run prisons out to tender, or 'market testing'. They intend, eventually, to have about 12 jails run privately.
Preston is a local prison which, at the time of the inspection in January, held 517 inmates, most of whom were unsentenced or low-security prisoners. Judge Tumim says that the standard of throughcare was 'abysmal', and the cells were 'squalid' and 'dirty'. Prisoners were allowed only one shower and two pairs of socks a week.
Derek Lewis, director-general of the Prison Service, said the problems highlighted in the report would be 'important factors' in deciding which jails should go out to tender, but added that no decision had been made about Preston. 'I am optimistic the prison will rise to the challenge, but if improvements are not made we will have to review its future.'
John Bartell, chairman of the Prison Officers' Association, said: 'For the prisons inspector to exploit the unfavourable conditions prevailing at Preston to the benefit of the private sector marks the beginning of the end for the independence of his office. Preston is one of the country's most overcrowded prisons and staff have had to work in exceptionally difficult conditions.'
David Roddan, general secretary of the Prison Governors Association, said: 'Whilst there does appear to have been resistance to the efforts of successive able governors, the Government must share the responsibility for the condition of Preston at the time of the inspection. This is largely due to a national prison population rise of 8,000 (20 per cent) in 18 months.'
Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, added: 'However poor the performance at Preston, there is as yet scant evidence that the private sector can deliver a better and more cost effective service . . .'
The risk of HIV infection in prison is 'enormous' because drug-taking is widespread and needles are endlessly re-used, according to a report by the Centre for Research on Drugs and Health Behaviour. Some inmates inject drugs twice a day. The researchers have called for methadone, the heroin substitute, to be made available in prisons, along with bleach to help sterilise needles.