Private firms refuse to run 'Britain's worst jail'

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The Independent Online

Plans by ministers to privatise the prison regarded as Britain's worst have collapsed because no company was prepared to run the troubled jail.

The refusal of any private security firm to take on HMP Brixton in south London is an embarrassment to the Home Office, which decided in the summer of last year to "market-test" the prison.

A year after the former prisons minister Paul Boateng announced that the "failing" prison was to be the first public penal institution to face privatisation, the Prison Service admitted that no company had submitted a tender.

The only offer to run the jail was a bid by the present prison staff, led by the new governor, Stephen Twinn, to continue running the prison within the public sector.

The outcome is a blow for ministers, who had hoped that turning Brixton prison over to the private sector would send a warning message to other underperforming jails.

But a report yesterday describedstandards at other jails in England and Wales as being had fallen below those at Brixton. League tables published by the Prison Reform Trust, based on official Prison Service figures, showed that Belmarsh prison, also in south London, where the disgraced peer Jeffrey Archer is being held, is Britain's "laziest" jail.

Inmates at Belmarsh spend just 13.3 hours a week in "purposeful activities", including education, employment workshops, rehabilitation classes, religious activities, sports and receiving visits.

Prisoners at Feltham young offenders' institution in west London, which was the subject of a scathing official report last week, had only 14.4 hours of activities. Brixton was fourth in the table with 15.6 hours.

The most violent jail was Castington young offenders' institution, in Northumberland, where there were 93 assaults to every 100 prisoners. At Brinsford, a young offenders institution in Wolverhampton, where a succession of prisoners has committed suicide, the "assault rate" of 62 per cent.

Huntercombe young offenders institution in the Thames Valley, seen as a flagship jail, has an "assault rate" of 61 per cent. The Prison Service target is 9 per cent.

The most drug-infested prison is is Featherstone in Wolverhampton, where 34 per cent of tests proved positive.

A spokeswoman for the private security firm Group 4 said that it had not bid for Brixton because of the lack of space at the jail, and the cost of maintaining the ageing buildings.

The lack of private interest in running the 180-year-old prison is hardly surprising. In a report last January, the outgoing chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, accused Brixton staff of showing "appalling irresponsibility" in risking the lives of prisoners by "sabotaging" alarm bells and falsifying reports on suicidal inmates.

In one of the most critical reports he has written, Sir David described conditions in Brixton's healthcare centre as "scandalous" and said the "filth and neglect" was the "most disgraceful example of conditions in a prison" he had seen.

Prisoners were locked in their cells under an "unofficial and unlawful" punishment system called "Reflections". The "Reflections" system was also highlighted in a damning report on Brixton jail last year by the Prison Service's own race adviser, Judy Clements, who uncovered allegations that black prisoners had been told by staff to "Go back to Africa".

As a result of Ms Clements' findings, the Commission for Racial Equality is investigating the prison as part of a wider formal inquiry into racism in the jails of England and Wales.

The Prison Service will be hoping that the staff at Brixton will somehow be able to turn the jail around.

An inspection report yesterday on nearby Wandsworth prison, also in south London, found that an institution once regarded even by prison chiefs as a "hell hole" had made big improvements under the leadership of a new governor.

In his last inspection report before retiring, Sir David Ramsbotham said that the improvements at Wandsworth showed that "there is nothing that cannot be achieved given good leadership". But he warned that some officers at the prison were still resistant to positive change.

He said: "I am concerned that it would appear that it is the younger rather than older staff who continue to cling on to the old ways, because that suggests that there is much elimination work still to be done".