Leading Article: The case for private prisons

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THE riot in Reading's remand centre notwithstanding, all the signs point towards an acceleration of the Government's plans to privatise the prison service. Just before Christmas, the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, announced the appointment of Derek Lewis, a television executive with no experience in the penal field, to head the new, semi-independent Prison Service Agency, in preference to a Home Office specialist; and yesterday it was reported that to increase the pace of privatisation, prisons may be contracted out in regional batches, rather than one by one.

Those who lobby for the reform and updating of this country's prisons, such as the Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League for Penal Reform, have attacked Mr Lewis's appointment, and generally oppose 'privatisation'. Among their objections is the principled one that it is wrong to make money out of the punishment of those convicted of crimes; and that the need to make a profit could create a conflict of interest between responsibilities towards prisoners on the one hand and shareholders on the other. Costs could be cut, they fear, to the detriment of prisoners and staff alike, thus increasing, rather than reducing, the risk of riots. Not surprisingly, the Prison Officers' Association shares that fear.

The reformers have been effective in drawing attention to the disgraceful conditions prevailing in many prisons. On this issue, however, their fears seem unduly ideological. If privatisation means that more and more prisons meet decent standards, it is hard to see any convincing reasons for opposing it. The term 'privatisation' is itself misleading, since it implies the wholesale disposal of a state-owned asset. The analogy should be with the contracting out of local government or NHS hospital services rather than with the selling off of state monopoly industries.

In playing on the public's natural distaste for the idea of commercial concerns making money out of prisoners, the reformers obscure the main benefit of private management: that because certain standards will have to be met and maintained, it creates an opportunity for an all-round levelling up, of precisely the kind they call for.

Many of the innovations suggested by Lord Justice Woolf, in his report on the Strangeways riot of 1990, and by HM Inspector of Prisons, Judge Stephen Tumim, are to be required of contracted-out prisons. They include a code of standards for the prison, a 'compact' covering prisoners' responsibilities and expectations; and greater access to education, physical exercise and work. The more prisons come under private management, the greater the pressure will be for standards to be raised to the same level across the system.

Only one of the 130 prisons in England and Wales, a new remand centre in North Humberside called the Wolds, is being operated under a private sector contract, although two others have been put out to tender. It was recently criticised by a judge after he heard that a remand prisoner was tortured and injected with heroin by fellow inmates, a fact that may be seized upon by reformers as evidence that privatisation will not work. They should remember that, if true, it was a single episode among many equally bad ones in grim old prisons across the country, evidence that the current system certainly does not work.