Reform goes out of the window: There are no votes in prisons, says the Home Secretary. His plan for privatisation kills any hope of improving conditions, argues Nick Cohen

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Institutions, like individuals, need to be single-minded if they are going to transform themselves. In 1991 the men in charge of Britain's unhygienic, violent and overcrowded prisons were told by their political masters to concentrate all their energies on root-and-branch reform.

Eighteen months on, ideological fashions have changed. Although the Home Office is still publicly committed to implementing the revolutionary recommendations of Lord Justice Woolf's inquiry into the riots at Strangeways prison, Manchester, in 1990, the reality is that the plans of Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, to privatise law and order have pushed reform off the agenda.

Douglas Hurd and Kenneth Baker, his predecessors, had - bravely, for Conservative politicians - committed themselves to cutting the number of prisoners and improving conditions. But when Mr Clarke was asked for his views on jails recently, he smiled and said: 'There are no votes in prisons.'

The current buzz phrase in his department is not 'Woolf inquiry' but 'market testing'. There are proposals to put contracts for running between 12 and 20 existing jails, and all new ones, out to competitive tender. Prison staffs will have to draw up their own bids to manage their jails and compete against Group 4, Securicor and other security companies.

Ministers argue that this appeal to the market is not incompatible with improving conditions in Britain's notorious jails. Why shouldn't the prison department - which has, after all, presided over this mess - make way for the private sector?

But this misses the point. Prison reform is a perennially unpopular issue. As Mr Clarke pointed out, most electors do not give a damn about it.

The Government's acceptance of the Woolf recommendations seemed to promise that the problems in the jails would be tackled seriously for the first time this century. But by imposing the trauma of market testing, the Government has made civil servants fight for their jobs instead of chanelling their intellectual resources into the enormous task of implementing Woolf.

Privatisation and reform are incompatible, not because the private sector is incompetent or wicked, but because the system cannot cope with both at the same time. Ministers had to choose between the two - and have chosen to go private.

The Woolf inquiry was dominated by liberal figures and its 600-page report echoed virtually every idea put forward by the numerous critics of the prisons. It did not mention privatisation. The most revolutionary recommendation was that jails should be transformed into 'community prisons', allowing prisoners to serve their sentences close to their homes and families. Specialist units would reinforce inmates' links with the outside world. The new model jails would combat crime by breaking the pattern of isolated offenders, deserted by their families, drifting back into crime after release.

For the Home Office, which had given prisoners little or no specialist help, in jails hundreds of miles from their homes, this was a sea change in policy. But when Mr Baker endorsed the report, civil servants and governors welcomed the concept of community prisons.

Now the idea is all but dead, and privatisation is in the ascendant. A working party on community jails was given six weeks to complete its work this year, and had no budget. At most, it will lead to a couple of pilot projects. By contrast, the market testing unit has a budget of pounds 1.6m and 60 full-time staff. It has the power to recommend that any part of the Home Office be put out to competitive tender.

Even before the unit got to work, Mr Clarke had bluntly rejected community prisons in his response to a report by Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, which said that the lonely and ramshackle Dartmoor prison should close because it had no community to serve. Mr Clarke replied that he had no intention of getting rid of the jail.

The tension between market testing and reform can best be seen at Strangeways. Last month its governor, Walter MacGowan was ordered to clear his desk and leave after news leaked out that he was planning to take a job with Group 4. He had been in the job for six weeks.

Immediately after Mr MacGowan's departure the Home Office confirmed that Strangeways would be put out to tender. Staff were appalled that Mr MacGowan was taking knowledge gained at Strangeways to a company that could bid for the contract to run the jail - and sack them if it won. The main task of Robin Halward, the replacement governor, will be to lead the in-house bid.

The news has pushed to one side all debate about relaxing 'oppressive' security or turning one wing into a community prison for inner Manchester. One manager said: 'If you know your job's going to be on the line, what's going to come first - reforming conditions or winning the contract? The next five months are going to be taken up entirely with preparing our bid.'

That Strangeways, scene of the the worst riot in British prison history, should be paralysed by the possibility of privatisation is a bitter pill for the prison reform movement to swallow.

During the Eighties, the movement - a loose alliance of pressure groups working outside the Home Office and civil servants arguing inside - convinced a succession of Conservative home secretaries that sending more and more people to inadequate jails was an immoral policy that had done nothing to check Britain's rising crime rate.

Vivien Stern, director of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, said in a recent paper that the liberty of the subject was a direct responsibility of the state and should not be delegated to private companies looking for profits. Private prisons would create 'a powerful commercial lobby interested in seeing a high number of prisoners imprisoned for a long time', with 'the resources to campaign politically and through the media for a penal policy which suits their business interests'.

Andrew Rutherford, chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform, rejected ministers' contention that private jails in America - the only commerical detention centres in the Western world - provided a model Britain could follow. 'There are just 20 or 30 small private jails in the US, mainly in Bible-belt states,' he said. 'The Americans have not attempted privatisation on the scale Mr Clarke is now proposing. A Congressional inquiry last year said it could not decide whether they had saved public money.'

Ministers remain adamant that there is no reason why private jails cannot be good jails as long as there are stringent monitoring and tight contracts. But they are living in a dream world.

In 10 years there could be three or four private companies running jails; a group of self-governing prisons managed by staff who submitted successful bids; and a rump remaining directly responsible to the Home Office. No minister will be able to order far-reaching improvements because there will be no such thing as a national prison system. The next generation that decides the jails are too awful to be tolerated will find the task of reform infinitely more difficult.

(Photograph omitted)