Are our lifers safe in their vans?: The unhappy prisoner escort service must account for its losses today, says Tim Jackson

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The Independent Online
TUCKED away inside a nondescript building in Worksop is a courtroom where no cases have ever been tried, no criminals sentenced, and no outsiders allowed into the public gallery. The court serves only one purpose: to give private security men a taste of what it is like to bring remand prisoners to court and see them safely through their appearances and, if necessary, back to jail. In recent months nearly 400 people have passed through the courtroom as part of their training; actors play the magistrates, clerks, barristers and prisoners they have to deal with in real life.

Last week the trainees put their experience to practical use for the first time. As employees of a subsidiary of the delivery conglomerate Group 4, they started work on a five-year, pounds 9.5m per year contract covering courts in the East Midlands and Humberside. The contract marks the first time that this unusual delivery job has been put out to tender. Puzzlingly, there is no single word to describe it: Group 4 talks of 'prisoner escort services', which makes it sound a little like a downmarket dating agency.

The contract could prove highly profitable for Group 4. It covers about 1 in 10 of all prisoner movements in Britain; if it goes well, there is every chance that the other nine will be put out to tender - and that Group 4 could win the next tender, due in the autumn, which covers the London area. With the firm's experience of delivering precious commodities such as gold and banknotes, and with a former chief constable appointed to its board for his knowledge of the criminal justice system, it had hoped to make a smooth start.

Yet the first week was not a happy one. On Day One a prisoner jumped over the barriers in a magistrates' court and made a run for it. In the next few days two prisoners managed to bash their way out of the secure delivery vans built especially for the contract. And during the Easter weekend a fourth prisoner in Group 4 custody walked free when a court mistakenly ordered the company's staff to let him go.

Today, when senior executives from Group 4 meet Derek Lewis, the head of the newly launched Prison Service Agency, their progress report will make interesting reading. It may be tempting to observe that to lose one prisoner may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose four in one week looks like carelessness. But Mr Lewis, a former chief executive of the Granada leisure group, is likely to resist the temptation to scoff.

After all, his officials have already admitted that it was they who approved the design of the Group 4 trucks that were so easy to escape from. The weekend incident is acknowledged to be the fault of court officials rather than those of the firm. And Group 4 can claim that the public outcry would have been all the greater if its employees had been too tough with prisoners on their first day at work, rather than too lax.

Circumstances conspired to give the new arrangements a bad press. It was a holiday period with little other news around. The Home Secretary was in Turkey and his colleagues were reluctant to defend the privatisation because the administration of prisons had been transferred to the separate public agency only a few days earlier and it was Mr Lewis rather than them who was operationally responsible. Mr Lewis himself was in Scotland over Easter, and those officials who were available in London had little information with which to rebut the obvious criticisms.

Until now prisoners have been carried around the country, and to and from courts, by an almost random process involving police, prison officers and court officials; and travelling by bus, taxi, police car, coach and Black Maria. When someone is arrested in Skegness for drunken driving and is found to have jumped bail in Derbyshire, the Skegness police call the Derbyshire police to arrange for a pair of officers to drive over and pick him up. The result is a huge, but unquantifiable, waste of money and time.

Sometimes, even sergeants and police inspectors spend hours escorting prisoners to and from court. 'It's an absolute scandal,' said one source yesterday. 'We're paying police officers a considerable salary to be out on the front line in Brixton, not to hang around outside the cells underneath a magistrates' court.'

Two separate consultants' reports told the Home Office the same thing: it could save money if it put the job out to tender. One even hazarded a figure: 32 per cent of an annual bill that is probably pounds 100m. The Home Office proceeded cautiously: of the six companies that put in bids, the two cheapest were rejected immediately on the grounds that the salaries they proposed to pay would not be high enough to keep reliable staff.

Group 4 pays its 400 prisoner-escort staff pounds 12,500 a year, plus another pounds 500 for those who have the necessary licence to drive its vans. They have each been trained for seven weeks, with special emphasis not just on how to behave in court, but on how to get prisoners into the vans and out again with the minimum of fuss. They carry no weapons, but are told they may use 'reasonable force'. More than 15 people applied for each job.

The business is not quite the same as delivering parcels, however. In the courier industry, packages are usually brought by vans to a central 'hub' and then make a second journey to their final destination. But Group 4 has no central holding facilities where prisoners can be transferred between vans. Instead, each van makes a single trip, stopping like a milk float at police stations, prisons and courts in the course of the morning.

A prison or police station that has people to be delivered sends a fax to the Group 4 control room in Worksop during the night, and prisoners are picked up from each point at prearranged times early in the morning. A computerised schedule plans the movements of 70 vans, each carrying up to 14 prisoners and two Group 4 staff.

Both the company and the civil servants insist that this is a far more workable system than the old one, and that the savings will become clear as soon as it has had time to settle down. Powerful interests are ranged against it, however: although chief constables and prison governors see delivering prisoners as a peripheral task that they would dearly love to hand over to outsiders, the Prison Officers' Association has fiercely opposed putting the job out to tender - and has gloated over the early difficulties.

Civil servants believe the storm will soon blow over. But that depends on whether the publicity subsides, and whether Group 4 and the prison service can work together to avoid further embarrassments in the coming weeks. If not, the firm may lose its contract, the union may get its way - and the Worksop courtroom may have been built in vain.

(Photograph omitted)