Protest over private prisons sent to UN: Reformers claim that contracting out jails contravenes international law. Jason Bennetto reports

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The Independent Online
PRIVATISING British prisons breaks international laws on human rights, according to a report published yesterday by a penal reform group.

The document describes allegations of poor regimes, secrecy, suicides, disturbances and financial profligacy at the three jails currently run by private companies. It was sent yesterday to the United Nations for its legal opinion.

The Howard League for Penal Reform, which drew up the report, questions the legality of a state being able to hand over the responsibility of caring for people imprisoned for breaking laws it enforces on society's behalf. It relies on the principle in article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the will of the people is the basis of the authority of government.

The three privately run prisons are the Wolds, in Humberside, Blakenhurst in Redditch, Worcestershire, and Doncaster. The Government plans to set up about another nine.

The report highlights over- spending on running costs at the Wolds by almost pounds 1m in its first year and the revelation that two firms made lower tender bids than the winner of the contract.

The Wolds has also denied access to the Howard League, for the first time in the history of the organisation.

'The shift towards commercialisation is accompanied by an unacceptable decrease in accountability,' says the report.

The document has been submitted to a debate on private prisons by the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, outlining what it says are failures of the British experiment.

The report concludes that hiding information for commercial reasons raises questions about the treatment of inmates and the way in which democratic organisations should be run.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, said: 'The UK Government has failed to develop a coherent penal policy and is trying to conceal this by handing over prisoners to commercial companies whose main motive is the pursuit of financial gain.

'The Howard League considers commercial prisons to be immoral, impracticable and contrary to international law.'

She added: 'We are hoping they (the sub-commission) will make recommendations to the UN that it is against international law. We could then consider legal action.'

A spokesman for the Prison Service denied the allegations yesterday, arguing that the responsibility for the contracted-out prisons lies with the Government and they are therefore accountable to Parliament. He rejected criticism about excessive secrecy - government officials and boards of visitors make regular inspections - and said the conditions at the privately run jails were as least as good as in state-run prisons.

Four inmates were on the run after escaping from a prison yesterday. Five category C prisoners broke out from Featherstone jail, near Wolverhampton, by making their way across a roof space and jumping down from the gate lodge. One was recaptured. Those at large - Stephen Bentley, Sean Robinson, Shane Jones, all 21, and Carl Billingham, 29 - were not believed to be dangerous.