27 April 2006 | Helen Gilbert
Firms appointed by the Home Office to run jails may start scrimping on prisoner care under the terms of new contracts, according to the chief inspector of prisons.
Anne Owers is concerned that an absence of detailed contract conditions may lead to the buying of basic goods suffering.
Her claim followed a visit to a privately run prison in Doncaster in November. There she found "squalid" conditions, pillows and toilet seats not being changed, and breaches in prison policy relating to replacing mattresses.
Serco, which runs the prison, "may have sought savings" in areas not mandated by the service level agreement, Owers concluded in her report, published this month.
She said managers had focused on contractual obligations, and had allowed other areas to "slip below what was safe and decent".
Ten out of 140 prisons in England are privately contracted by the Home Office, which will require all prisons to draw up service level and contractual agreements to improve transparency and performance.
But Owers fears this might lead to similar conditions at other prisons, if detailed standards are not set out in the new contracts.
"This is something that the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) will need to be alert to, both in setting the terms of those agreements and monitoring their impact," she wrote.
A spokesman for Serco, which runs three prisons in England, admitted standards had fallen in 10 out of the 790 cells in Doncaster. He said mattresses were now being replaced, but denied savings were deliberately being made in areas not listed in the contract, which was jointly devised with the Home Office.
"In November there were large numbers of new prisoners each day," he told SM
. "We did fail to replace things as quickly as we should but we don't accept the cells were squalid."
A Home Office spokeswoman said NOMS is reviewing contract details.