Letter: Objections to prison privatisation

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The Independent Online
Sir: Kenneth Clarke's defence of the Government's rush towards prison privatisation ('Prisoners with private means', 22 December) cannot be allowed to pass without comment. No one, least of all the Prison Reform Trust, would deny that our prison system requires radical reform. It would also be wrong to deny that conditions at the Wolds, the first private remand centre, are in general superior to those experienced by remand prisoners at jails such as Armley or Hull.

However, Mr Clarke is mistaken in believing that opponents of privatisation are enslaved by 'ideological prejudice'. There are certainly reasons of principle why one should be opposed to privatisation of prisons. It is wholly unacceptable that private concerns should make a profit out of delivering punishment. Nor can one be entirely comfortable with the development of a lobby with a financial interest in an increasing prison population.

Nevertheless, our main objections are purely practical. There is every reason to believe that private prisons will not deliver the sort of reforms to which Mr Clarke and we are committed. Despite all the public relations flummery, the experience of prison privatisation in the US has been little short of a disaster. Prisons have only been able to deliver a profit by cutting costs: reducing staff numbers, thereby risking disorder, or employing cheap, low-quality staff. Some prisons have failed to fulfil their contract or have experienced financial problems.

Despite Mr Clarke's claims, one can conclude little from experience in the UK. Blakenhurst is not yet open, and the promises made by UK Detention Services are as yet untested. The Wolds has experienced a series of disturbances, and only last week was severely criticised by a judge for allegedly allowing the abuse of a prisoner. If conditions in these prisons are superior to the state sector, it is largely because the Government's tender documents ensured that they would be.

Far from guaranteeing prison reform, privatisation is an obstacle to it. The threat of privatisation is diverting attention from what should be the agenda for ministers and prison staff: delivering the changes to the system envisaged by Lord Justice Woolf after the Strangeways riot.

And nowhere in its 600 pages did the Woolf report mention privatisation.

Yours faithfully,


Deputy Director

Prison Reform Trust

London, N1

22 December