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Reformers critical of private jails Penal System

By Cathy Newman
Financial Times (London, England)
January 25, 2005

Businesses are no better at running prisons than their public sector counterparts, a report says today, in what union leaders hope will act as a "wake-up call" to the government on the privatisation of jails.

The performance of the 10 private prisons in England and Wales is "very mixed", according to the report by the Prison Reform Trust, which calls into question the ethics and logic of companies profiting from the incarceration of thousands of people.

In a foreword to the study, Private Punishment: Who Profits?, Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, urges ministers to adopt a "fundamental change of direction" and says the findings should act as a "wake-up call to the government".

In private prisons there are 17 per cent fewer staff per prisoner and the employee turnover rate is at least double that in the public sector. One consequence, says Mr Barber, is that "safety may be compromised for both staff and prisoners - six out of the 10 private prisons fail to meet their targets on serious assaults".

The Prison Reform Trust, which campaigns for a more humane penal system, also says the private sector is less accountable to the taxpayer than public operators.

Meanwhile the government revealed yesterday that the number of people in prison could soar to 87,500 by 2011, but that the growth was slowing. Jail numbers have reached record numbers under Labour, but latest projections suggest the increase is tailing off.

There are currently 73,713 people in jail.

The Conservatives accused the government of releasing criminals early in order to keep a lid on the jail population. Home Office figures show a big increase in the number of offenders tagged and sent home. A total of 21,223 prisoners were released in 2003 under the so-called home detention curfew scheme, compared with 14,845 in 1999.

In addition, more community sentences have been issued - 130,977 in 1999 and 168,328 in 2003. Paul Goggins, prisons minister, said: "We are trying to get that rebalancing between more prison for the most serious offenders and community sentencing for the less serious offenders."

New measures from the Criminal Justice Act, passed in November 2003, will see tougher sentences for sexual and violent offenders. Those considered by the Parole Board to be a serious threat to the public will never be released.

But David Davis, shadow home secretary, said the new figures "in effect mean up to 13,000 criminals who should be locked up will escape prison".

The Conservatives are committed to building 20,000 more prison places.

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