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UK: 20,000 new private beds?

Tories would use private finance for new jails
By Bob Sherwood, Legal Correspondent
February 8 2005

Conservative plans to build prisons to hold 20,000 more offenders will be delivered through private finance deals, the party has said.

Michael Howard, Tory leader, unveiled proposals yesterday to end the early release scheme for prisoners and require judges to set minimum and maximum sentences for offenders.

The policy would push up the prison population by about 16,700 in the first five years of a Tory administration, requiring an urgent building programme of new prisons, according to projections. The Tories have pledged to create 20,000 new prison places.

At a typical cost of 30,000 a year for a private sector prison place, the increase in prisoners would add 514m a year to the prisons budget by 2012.

A Tory official said new prisons would be built by PFI contractors because there was "no provision in the expenditure for that large capital outlay" from the public purse. He said the new prisons could be run by private sector operators, though no decision had yet been taken on who would manage the jails.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "Under the Tories' plans, they would require scores more jails, involving a huge hike in taxation."

The Tories insisted the increase in jail cells - costing 122m in the first year, 2007-08 - was already factored into spending plans.

The Labour government has presided over an increase in the prison population to historic highs. There are currently about 73,700 prisoners in England and Wales, up from 59,000 when Labour came to power and from about 46,000 20 years ago.

The Home Office predicts a sustained rise in prisoner numbers of almost 20 per cent over the next six years, to as many as 87,500 by 2011. The Conservative plans project an extra 16,000 prisoners on top of that.

In contrast to the Tory plans, the government has created new community sentences and told judges to consider prison overcrowding when deciding whether a criminal should be jailed, to try to keep the prison population below 80,000.

The Tories have criticised the government for failing to provide enough prison places.

The role of the private sector in running prisons has increased dramatically over the past decade. The first private jail was built under the Tories in the early 1990s at the Wolds, Yorkshire.

There are now 10 privately run prisons in England and Wales and another is due to open soon in Peterborough. The Premier Custodial Group is the largest provider with four adult prisons. Group 4 runs three prisons and two secure training centres, while UK Detention centres has another three prisons. However, a report by the Prison Reform Trust last month said businesses were no better at running prisons than their pubic sector counterparts.

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