Letter: Veil of secrecy surrounds our one private prison

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The Independent Online
Sir: Kenneth Clarke's eulogy of private prisons is both unbalanced and premature (22 December). There is only one private prison in Britain, the Wolds on Humberside, and it has been open for just nine months. For most of those nine months the prison has been barely half-full and even now it is holding only three-quarters of the prisoners it is designed to contain.

Almost all state prisons of equivalent category to the Wolds are chronically overcrowded but, given the space and resources handed to Group 4, the private security firm that has been contracted to run the Wolds, the public prison service could deliver the type of regime Mr Clarke tells us prevails at the Wolds.

Mr Clarke knows that prison campaigners have remained sceptical about private prisons. Notwithstanding their ethical opposition to prisons for profit, he should recognise that the veil of secrecy which cloaks the Wolds makes it impossible for anybody to know what exactly is going on.

No one knows how much the Government is paying Group 4 to run the prison because neither the Government nor Group 4 will say, and no one knows about the nature of the healthcare arrangements for prisoners at the Wolds.

No one knows what goes on at the Wolds on a day-to-day basis because Mr Clarke has refused to publish the reports compiled at the Wolds by the Crown Monitor stationed at the prison by the Government. And no one knows exactly how many disturbances have taken place. Last week a judge at York crown court heard that a remand prisoner at the Wolds was tortured and forcibly injected with heroin.

Mr Clarke says that private prisons are harnessed to Lord Justice Woolf's agenda for reform. Well, why can't the 128 state prisons be similarly harnessed? Lord Justice Woolf's recommendations for the prison service were devised to liberate the state system, not to access the private sector to the rich pickings of prisons.

The Woolf report made it clear that existing prison staff were committed to constructive prison reform and possessed the professionalism and dedication to deliver those reforms. The report said nothing about the private sector and the analysis confounds Mr Clarke's inference that prison reform depends upon privatisation.

What the prison service needs are the resources to eliminate overcrowding, which is destined to worsen in the next decade, and to deliver legally enforceable minimum standards in every state prison. Instead of premature eulogies to prisons for profit, the Government ought to provide the resources implicit within the Woolf report's agenda for reform. But then that would cost money and, as Mr Clarke has acknowledged, there are no votes in prisons.

Yours sincerely,


Research and Information

Officer, Prison Officers'


London, N9