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ppp Thursday, 26 September, 2002, 15:18 GMT 16:18 UK
Liverpool's profitable prison
Altcourse prison was formerly known as Fazakerley
Altcourse prison was formerly known as Fazakerley

Altcourse is one of the new generation of privately built and run prisons.

It was designed, constructed and financed by a private consortium, Group Four, and opened at the end of 1997. The company is now responsible for running the establishment.

Early reports about the management of the prison have been very favourable. But the financing of the project has raised questions about the amount of money than can be made by companies in the prison business.

Once the new jail was built, Group 4 managed to re-negotiate its bank loans, increasing its return on the contract from 16 to 39 per cent.

MPs were disturbed to discover that this meant a windfall of 10m, of which only one tenth will find its way back into public funds.

Clawback clause

From now on, the government will be insisting on a "clawback clause" for all projects of this kind.

Patrick Gardiner, the managing director of a rival private firm involved in public sector contracts, Jarvis Projects, told BBC News Online that it was difficult to justify such profits.

Altcourse is classed as a local prison, which means it draws prisoners from the immediate area, including many who are on remand awaiting trial.

Despite the controversy over the profits for Group 4, the prison has been held up as a model for the Prison Service, and received a glowing report from the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham.

Model prison

He said it was "by some way" the best local prison he had seen, and other prison governors could learn much. Among the prison's good points:

  • Excellent relations between prisoners and staff
  • Courtesy shown towards prisoners
  • Little evidence of bullying
  • Good health care

But the inspectors were concerned about:

  • Overcrowding
  • Four suicides in two years
  • Not enough "purposeful activity" for prisoners
  • Not enough programmes to help prevent re-offending

Sir David summed up the prison like this: "My team and I frequently had to pinch ourselves and remember that the prison had only been open for slightly less than two years.

"I am not alone in my views about the excellence of what is being done at Altcourse."

Since the inspection, at the end of 1999, Group 4 has responded to criticism from both Sir David and the Prison Service.


During the financial year 2000-01, Altcourse topped the league table for "purposeful activity" by prisoners in local jails. In fact, four of the top five in this category were privately run prisons.

According to Alec Leathwood, of the Prison Service Union, this is an important factor in the success of the privately run prisons.

He says: "In the private sector the conditions are much more humane, and better for the staff, because prisoners are occupied and therefore more content and easier to deal with."

But in his report, Sir David warned of "storm clouds gathering" because of overcrowding at the prison, with many men having to share cells.

Nevertheless, the performance of Altcourse has gone some way to allay the concern of those who criticise the drive to privatise prisons, even if they remain opposed to it on principle.

Sir David Ramsbotham, who has strongly criticised the way many public sector prisons are run, concluded that Altcourse was a prison that other governors and prison officials should visit.

"There is much they could learn from the experience," he said. .

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