US firm allowed to overcrowd prison: Secret Home Office contract sparks fears of 'dangerous' jail. Nick Cohen reports

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The Independent Online
A PRIVATE American company will be allowed to run an overcrowded and 'potentially dangerous' prison for the first time since the introduction of penal capitalism.

A contract between the Home Office and Premier Prison Services Ltd - secret in Britain, but open for inspection at the offices of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Washington - says that the company has an 'option to overcrowd' Doncaster jail, opening today.

Until now, the Home Office has tightly controlled prisoner levels in the other private jails - the Wolds, Humberside, and Blakenhurst, Hereford and Worcester, so that inexperienced companies have been spared coping with an overcrowded jail.

But with the prison population heading towards 50,000 because of the get-tough policies of Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, the Prison Service has ruled that the Doncaster contractors could have to manage overcrowding of almost 50 per cent. The contract shows that the jail's 'certified' level of accommodation - the maximum it can safely hold - is 770. An 'overcrowding option' allows the managers to take up to 1,169 prisoners.

The minimum target price the Home Office will pay for running the jail at its certified level is pounds 10.2m a year. More money will be handed over as and when overcrowding increases. The Home Office is also meeting the pounds 5.3m start-up and phase-in costs. Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the fact that the Home Office was allowing 'inexperienced staff' to cope with serious overcrowding was 'very worrying and potentially dangerous'. The numbers envisaged in Doncaster were 'an alarming indication of how the Government sees jail numbers rising'.

Staff at Doncaster will not be members of the Prison Officers' Association. Among the new recruits are at least 13 former miners. A British Coal spokesman said that taxpayers' money had been used to train them - they were good candidates to become private guards because 'their life underground had trained them to be aware of health and safety, security and teamwork'.

Mr Shaw said: 'Miners who used to produce wealth are now reduced to being guards for an American prison corporation. It symoblises the way Britain is going.'

The contract shows that the Home Office is willing to tolerate a high level of violence in Doncaster. Penalty clauses, which would reduce the Premier Prison Services' fee, will not come into operation until there have been more than 77 assaults on staff and 148 assaults on prisoners by other prisoners, in the first year. Two escapes from the prison and eight escapes from vans escorting inmates to courts will also be tolerated.

Premier Prison Services is a consortium made up of Wackenhut, an American security firm, and Serco, a British services company. Wackenhut has a large number of former military and FBI men among its senior management. In 1990, it was forced to make substantial improvements to two jails it ran in Texas after an audit found that fewer than half the job-training schemes it had promised were in operation, and 'timely' health care was not on offer.

Meanwhile, Buckley Hall, a prison near Rochdale which was mothballed in 1989, may be given to the private sector. A management bid from Prison Service managers was lower than a rival tender from Securicor, but the Prisons Board has rejected the offer, prompting speculation that Mr Howard, as he announced last year, would give 12 prisons to private companies, even if civil service bids were lower. A Prison Service spokeswoman said that money was not the only issue and the board had to consider whether the management team could run drug-treatment services.