Leading Article: New options for prisons

Click to follow
KENNETH CLARKE, the man who introduced trust hospitals and furthered the cause of grant-maintained schools, is considering whether to prescribe similar medicine for the prison service. In headline terms this is 'privatisation'. But the Home Secretary has no intention of selling prisons, still less their involuntary inhabitants, to the highest bidder. Instead he hopes to build on cautious plans that he inherited from his predecessor, Kenneth Baker. At present, these allow commercial concerns to bid for the management of some new prisons, which would, however, remain the property of the state.

So far, one newly opened low-security prison, the Wolds remand centre, is being run privately, on an experimental basis. Prisoners (or clients, as this government might yet come round to calling them) speak well of it. As a result, tenders have been sought for the management of a local prison, Blakenhurst, which will open in 1993. At the end of last year, Judge Stephen Tumim, H M Chief Inspector of Prisons, said in his annual report that one of the most fundamental factors inhibiting the reform of prisons was a 'lack of expectation that matters can ever improve'. If the Home Secretary wishes to end the conditions that breed a poverty of expectation, he has two choices: national edict or local autonomy. Wisely, Mr Clarke has chosen the latter route. Now he must decide how best to proceed apace on his chosen path. This means coming to grips with existing prisons, most of which are overcrowded, ill managed and dominated by the most powerful and fastest growing public-sector union, the Prison Officers' Association.

The most effective way of raising expectations will be to allow individual prisons to opt out of national agreements - subject to tough contracts and the increasingly effective oversight provided by the Inspectorate. This move to greater autonomy might involve applications for trust status, or bids for management contracts by existing governors and senior staff, which would be considered alongside applications from commercial companies.

Mr Clarke is a rumbustious politician and an effective propagandist. He is going to need these skills if he is to sell to the public the virtues of large-scale prison opt-outs. There is an instinctive aversion to the idea of commercial concerns making money out of prisoners, and a natural distaste for the idea of prisoners being detained by anyone other than a direct employee of the state.

The Home Secretary should meet these objections head on, accepting publicly that, when the state deprives an individual of liberty, it assumes an absolute responsibility for his or her well-being. He might reasonably draw attention to the inadequate manner in which our state-owned, state-run, non-profit prisons have met this responsibility. For the most part, prisons are neither cost-effective nor humane.

The advantage of contracting out, Mr Clarke could argue, is that it would force the Prison Department to draw up contracts, which should go into detail about conditions and facilities the prisons must provide. These commitments should be published and policed by Judge Tumim's team. Over time, the result would be the creation of something approaching a prisoners' charter. If opting-out means higher standards, no one should object.