Letter: Privatisation and efficiency in the prison service

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The Independent Online
Sir: Nick Cohen's article on prisons ('Reform goes out the window', 26 August) is too pessimistic by half. Even a cursory comparison between the 12 principal recommendations in the Woolf Report and initiatives either in place or planned by the Home Office indicates how far the Prison Service has moved on.

The ending of slopping out and censorship, the introduction of cardphones, liberalisation of visits, ending the disciplinary role of Boards of Visitors, plus the commitments to a Prisons Ombudsman and a code of standards are not negligible advances, nor should they be presented as such.

However, community prisons remain but a distant dream, and projections of the future size of the prison population are alarming. The most recent official forecasts imply a rise of one-quarter in the number of prisoners over the remainder of the decade, including an increase of no less than 43 per cent in the number of people held on remand. At the very least, ministers need to dust off the speeches that Douglas Hurd and John Patten used to deliver in which they commended a reduction in the use of custody.

There is a clear danger that all the time and energy now devoted to privatisation and 'market testing' means that the people at the sharp end - both staff and prisoners - are somehow forgotten. Managerial change is always presented as the route to more effective provision of services. But recent history in the Prison Service does not provide much evidence that this is the case.

'Market testing' also looks inconsistent with the idea of the Prison Service chief executive providing 'visible leadership', a notion to which Woolf attached particular importance. You cannot lead people one week and put their jobs out to competitive tender the next.

The Home Secretary needs to make it crystal clear that he personally identifies with the Woolf reforms. It is extremely disappointing that ministers now seldom refer to Woolf in any of their public statements.

If that really is symptomatic of their approach, then Nick Cohen will be proved right in believing that the historic opportunity presented by the Woolf Report is in danger of being lost. If such does turn out to be the case, the consequences will be grave indeed.

Yours faithfully,



Prison Reform Trust

London, N1

26 August