A list of the 18 public-sector prisons with the highest number of escapes and assaults on staff and prisoners has been drawn up by the Prison Service. The success of governors in getting inmates out of cells and into 'constructive activities' has also been measured.
Senior civil servants will ask governors to explain why their prisons rank so low in the league table of performance indicators. When all the pleas of mitigation have been heard, two of the jails will be put on the market and private security companies will be able to bid against staff for contracts to manage the prisons.
Ministers believe that a private sector of about 12 jails by 1996 will bring competition into the prison system and raise standards. Four prisons have been privatised so far.
The prospect of the largely American private penal companies being allowed to make more money out of running Britain's prisons infuriated trade union leaders.
Harry Fletcher, spokesman for the trade unions' campaign Prisons are not for Profit, said it was absurd to believe that private companies could raise standards. The jail with the worst record for assaults was Blakenhurst, the private prison in Worcestershire, he said. The Wolds, in Humberside, is 'covered in a blanket of secrecy'.
Mr Fletcher added: ''We're also getting very disturbing reports about what is happening in Doncaster, the newest private jail. Documents on prisoners are not getting from the jail to the courts and young prisoners are talking about a high level of violence.'
While the Government is pushing ahead with the privatisation of adult jails, its attempts to get companies to support 'child prisons' for 12- to 15-year-olds appear to be failing.
Social workers, charities, local authorities and educationalists have all condemned the children's jails. Senior sources in private companies, who did not wish to be identified, said that without the co-operation of outside agencies the proposed prisons would be very hard to manage.
'We're very lukewarm about bidding for the children's centres,' said one private security manager, whose company already runs an adult jail. 'They're meant to educate children and if educationalists and others won't co-operate, they could become too much trouble to run.'