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Thursday, November 4, 1999 Published at 19:26 GMT

UK Politics

Brixton jail gets sell-off warning

Brixton jail has one year to make significant improvements

Brixton prison may be privatised after a visit in which ministers said maintaining the status quo at the "failing institution" was not an option.

BBC News' Jane Peel: No-one can agree who is to blame for failing prison
Home Office Minister Paul Boateng has given the jail 12 months to improve, and has ordered a fundamental review of the south London prison which has seen a spate of suicide attempts by inmates in recent months.

Mr Boateng said if the situation at the prison was not significantly improved over the next year, private companies would be invited to take it over.

[ image: Paul Boateng: No change is not an option]
Paul Boateng: No change is not an option
The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders welcomed the review, saying the jail suffered from overcrowding and underfunding.

But a spokesman said: "Private management is not a panacea for all failing prisons. It is extremely doubtful that this is the answer for a Victorian prison like Brixton."

Home Secretary Jack Straw asked Mr Boateng to turn round the prison where more than 30 inmates had tried to kill or harm themselves in just two months.

Prison governor Robert Chapman had threatened to turn away prisoners with health problems because conditions at the jail were so bad and medical services in danger of collapse.

He said bandages were going unchanged and prisoners with severe mental illnesses were being locked up for 23 hours a day.

Mr Boateng first visited the jail in October and promised extra staff. He said on his return on Thursday that conditions had improved, but added: "No change is not an option."

Since the minister's last visit, additional nurses and a new drug support service had helped to improve healthcare standards and cut suicide attempts.

But Mr Boateng said: "Brixton must in its current state be regarded as a failing institution.

"The message is clear - if the public sector cannot deliver the necessary improvements then the private sector must be given an opportunity to do so."

Staffing levels, resources and facilities will be considered during the review, which will focus on the number of different roles the prison carries out.

The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders welcomed the review and said it should look at overcrowding, underfunding and mental health issues.

But it warned that the threat of privatisation was not helpful. "It is extremely doubtful that this is the answer for a Victorian prison like Brixton," said a spokesman, predicting this would lead to a loss of experienced staff.

"Improvement is more likely to be achieved by a concerted drive by all those involved in the running of the prison."

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