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Private jail slammed for policy

By John Revill
Birmingham Post
Sept 3 2003

Staff at a private jail were so inexperienced they were unwilling or unable to confront inmates, the chief inspector of prisons said today.

Faults at Dovegate prison in Staffordshire included a "cumbersome" system to deal with insubordination, which allowed prisoners to "exploit the situation" and avoid punishment, Anne Owers said.

Operator Premier Custodial Group was also accused of maintaining a "policy facade" disguising a lack of effective systems.

The report, though praising the jail for its facilities and innovations, was seized on by prison reformers and trades unionists who have long claimed privatised jails were inadequately staffed.

The 800-inmate category B jail near Uttoxeter held sophisticated offenders who were "capable of exploiting any weaknesses or naivety in the staff who supervise them," said Ms Owers.

"There was a worrying lack of experience and confidence among a young, locally recruited staff, few of whom had any previous prison experience and who were operating with low staffing levels and high staff turnover," the report said.

"We observed an inability or unwillingness to confront prisoners appropriately." Few prisoners had privileges taken away even if they misbehaved, leading to the whole system being "seriously undermined".

Inspectors said in their report: "Drug use appeared prevalent, yet drug reduction measures were given low priority."

They also found that a so-called "personal officer" scheme designed to build a personal relationship between staff and inmates existed "in name only".

A survey by Ms Owers' team found that 17 per cent of inmates reported being kicked, punched or assaulted by another prisoner.

But there was reluctance to stop bullying even though an anti-bullying strategy had supposedly been put in place.

Premier has a 15-year contract with the Home Office to run Dovegate, which opened in July 2001, although how much it is paid remains secret.

Inspectors did praise the clean-liness of the jail and the amount of time inmates spent out of their cells and singled out the catering and prison shop for credit.

Inspectors made 135 recommendations for improvement.

Director of the Prison Reform Trust Juliet Lyon said: "Until, and unless, private sector prisons improve staff pay and conditions it is difficult to see how they can attract and retain the experienced staff they need to develop safe, decent regimes for prisoners."

Duncan Keys, of the Prison Officers' Association, said he was concerned why Dovegate's failings had not been picked up sooner by Home Office "con-trollers" who are based in the jail to make sure Premier fulfils its contract.

Dovegate's director Kevin Rogers said the company's policy of recruiting staff locally would help create "some of the most highly trained and experienced individuals available to the prison service".

He added: "We have fewer employees than most state-run prisons because our agreement with the prison service union and the open minds of new recruits allow us to introduce more modern and flexible working systems.

"We are proud of our staff and the excellent job they do."

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