Letter: Shambles at private jail

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Sir: You report Jack Straw as having told prison officers that he is now a convert to the idea of private prisons (20 May). Last week I had an opportunity of visiting one of the most recent private jails, Parc, outside Bridgend, and my impressions may be of wider interest.

To be blunt, the prison was a shambles. Prisoners were openly contemptuous of the abilities of staff. Perhaps as a consequence, there has been a series of disturbances and the number of disciplinary adjudications is running at more than twice the level of neighbouring state-run prisons. Drug-testing procedures, suicide prevention, race relations and the use of incentives were all in their infancy. And the jail's use of technology - notably the electronic unlocking of gates - was a farce, with the result that movement around the prison took an age.

Since the prison opened six months ago, virtually the entire senior management team has been moved on. Staff turnover has also been at a high level, and the first thing I saw on entering was a notice beseeching the remaining officers to work overtime.

On the plus side, the design of the prison looks promising, the staff who had survived the first six months seemed decent and genuinely committed to their calling, and the new director (governor) was providing a clear sense of leadership. More staff have been recruited and - at the Prison Service's behest - an action plan to rectify weaknesses has been drawn up, including ambitious proposals to enhance the regime.

Every private jail seems to have similar problems in its first year of operation, as inexperienced staff come to terms with all-too-experienced prisoners. After that, performance improves markedly, as I expect it to do at Parc. But it is instructive that, at the beginning of the month, Mr Straw's colleague Joyce Quin, the prisons minister, was so concerned that she called for a full report on the problems at the prison from the director general of the Prison Service.

That report should be made public. So should the review of the possible use of private finance to build new prisons, whilst retaining the management function in the public sector, to which Mr Straw also referred in his speech.

STEPHEN SHAW

Director, Prison Reform Trust

London EC1

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