Britain to Test Putting Prisons In Private Hands

STRANGEWAYS, the Dickensian-era prison in Manchester that inmates destroyed in spectacular rioting two years ago, is to be moved into the private sector.

The step could set a trend of widespread privatization of British prisons. The Strangeways plan announced Aug. 4 by British Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke, is part of a two-pronged government policy of cutting management costs and reducing the influence of trade unions on the running of Britain's 128 prisons.

Strangeways will be the first established British prison to be taken out of public-sector control. A remand center near Liverpool has been contracted out to the private sector since April 1992, and bids for two more prisons have been invited from private operators. All three, however, are newly established institutions. Strangeways, by contrast, was built in 1868 and is being refurbished at a cost to the government of 63 million British pounds (US$122 million).

In 25 days of rioting in 1990, the prison's 1,200 inmates looted the building and set it on fire.

"My duty is to get the management able to provide the most constructive and positive regime for prisoners, and to secure the best value for money," says Peter Lloyd, the minister for prisons. "If that can be done by private firms, coming from outside, that is what I must go for."

The average weekly cost of housing a prisoner in the state-run system is currently 340 British pounds, Home Office officials say.

Mr. Lloyd says the prison service itself is free to formulate its own bid to run Strangeways in what would amount to an attempted management buyout.

"I would be delighted if that happened," Lloyd says.

But officials of the 28,000-strong Prison Officers' Association (POA) question Lloyd's good faith in being prepared to entertain a bid from the present Strangeways management.

"The government's aim is to reduce running costs, and the Home Office would like to cut prison staff to the bone. They hope that by allowing the Strangeways management to make its own bid, they will achieve manning reductions. Obviously, the smaller the staff, the lower the bid can be," a POA official says.

Brian Caton, the POA vice president, warned that private firms would not provide adequate security and that dangerous criminals might escape.

The opposition Labour Party has also expressed concern.

"We have deep reservations about the ability of the private sector to run prisons when tendering will be on the basis of price," says Joan Ruddock, home affairs spokeswoman for Labour.

By early next year, when the Strangeways bids are in and under scrutiny, the government will have only limited practical experience of private-sector management of prisons.

All eyes are on the Wolds remand center near Hull, now being operated by the Group Four security company under an annual 5 million British pounds contract. The 32 million British pounds center is designed to hold 320 inmates - accused of crimes but not convicted - in the care of 160 staff.

Mr. Caton of the POA said the security problem of accommodating remand prisoners was "minor" compared with the challenge posed by the hardened criminals held in Strangeways at the time of the rioting.

Management at the Wolds has refused to recognize the POA, which is one of the few public-sector trade unions that did not grow weaker in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister, set out deliberately to curb union power.

The government has not said how many prisons it wants to privatize, but POA officials worry that if Mr. Clarke succeeds in privatizing Strangeways, another 50 or 60 institutions could go the same way.

If the Strangeways management team make a winning bid, their success could become a model for other prison managements that have a long record of conflict with the POA.

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