Select Committee on Public Accounts Forty-Ninth Report

1 Exchanging good practice between prisons

1. Under the PFI the private sector undertakes the design and construction of a prison and thereafter maintains and operates it for 25 years. PFI prisons differ from most other PFI projects as the contractor provides the whole service, including custody, education and healthcare for prisoners, whereas in projects such as new hospitals and schools the public sector remains responsible for the provision of key staff such as nurses and teachers.

2. The use of the PFI has helped sustain an alternative group of prison providers, which has helped to reduce costs and has acted as an incentive to improve prison performance. PFI contractors have brought innovations in three main areas: in the treatment of prisoners; in the more flexible deployment of staff; and in the use of new technology.

Treatment of prisoners

3.An important innovation by the private sector has been in promoting a more constructive staff/prisoner relationship. Staff in PFI prisons are encouraged to treat prisoners in a more positive manner, for example through the use of first names and mentoring schemes. When surveyed by the NAO, prisoners in PFI establishments felt that they were treated better and shown greater respect than prisoners in public prisons (Figure 2).[2] The Prison Service and the contractors considered that PFI prisons had been able to develop such a culture because managers were opening a new prison with staff that could be trained to deal positively with prisoners.

Source: C&AG's Report

4. PFI prisons tended to have younger prison officers and more female officers than in public prisons.[3] However, less experienced officers were at risk of being conditioned by prisoners to overlook security breaches. Most of the escapes from prisons in recent years had occurred in this way. There had been a high turnover of staff in most private prisons and in each case turnover was considerably higher than the average public sector figure of 6% (Figure 3). Turnover was particularly high in private prisons that had opened recently, possibly because many new recruits had no previous experience of prisons. The Prison Service was concerned that staff would not have long enough to learn how to manage prisoners. As prisons settled down over time, however, staff turnover had started to reduce, and the older private sector prisons now had a much lower staff turnover than the newer ones.[4]

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Source: C&AG's Report

5. In the public sector, where staff turnover was low, it was difficult to change entrenched attitudes. Staff had often entered the Prison Service many years before when there were different expectations about the treatment of prisoners, and the emphasis was on containment rather than rehabilitation. Getting the balance right in the way staff treated prisoners was crucial. Staff had to be able to work closely with prisoners whilst at the same time not being too trusting; otherwise there were security problems. The Prison Service was working to improve the way prisoners were dealt with in the public sector by recruiting more carefully and by training rather better.[5]

Deployment of staff

6. Staff costs account for about 80% of the running costs of a prison. Consequently, innovation from the private sector has often focused on the more efficient use of staff. Shift patterns in PFI prisons allow receptions to open later, visiting times to be more flexible and prisoners on enhanced regimes to eat with their families. These innovations have been possible because employee terms and conditions were written with operational flexibility in mind. The Prison Service had reviewed staffing at all public prisons, which had enabled it to introduce more flexible shift patterns, similar to those used by contractors. The changes to staffing levels had not always been greeted favourably or with enthusiasm, but had been implemented without opposition.[6]

7. The drive for greater efficiency had led to downward pressure on the price of recent contracts, leading to reductions in staffing levels and concerns that prisons would not be able to meet their full obligations. For example, the ratio of staff to prisoners at Rye Hill was much lower than for earlier PFI prisons, such as Altcourse and Parc. The Home Office also had concerns about staffing levels at two of the public prisons—Manchester and Blakenhurst—operating under Service Level Agreements. The two PFI prisons currently being built at Peterborough and Ashford would have higher staff-prisoner ratios. The contractor had been selected for the innovation and quality of its bid rather than just the contract price. The Home Office wanted the successful contractor to be fully committed to spending time on reducing re-offending.[7]

8. The private sector had been able to pay less in areas of the country where wage levels were lower. However, as the three most recently opened PFI prisons were located in areas of low unemployment and high average salaries, contractors had found it difficult to recruit staff and were failing to meet even the low staffing levels agreed in the contract. Dovegate had incurred high financial penalties in respect of assaults, security breaches and positive drug tests, which the contractor believed was due to the difficulty in retaining staff. Ashfield had also found it difficult to recruit good teachers as the terms and conditions offered were worse than at local schools.[8]

Use of new technology

9. PFI prisons have been innovative in their use of new technology. IT systems are used to monitor the whereabouts of prisoners and to provide information on the purposeful activities they are engaged in. Public sector prisons use paper-based systems, which provide less reliable information that is not instantly available. PFI prisons also make far wider use of CCTV to improve security. The Prison Service is currently introducing an IT system which will allow public prisons to monitor prisoner activity. But it would be difficult to make wider use of technology, such as CCTV and electronic doors, in many of the older public prisons built in the 19th century.[9]

Exchanging good practice

10. The C&AG's Report found only limited evidence that good practice was being exchanged between prisons or that private sector innovation was being incorporated into public prisons. The Prison Service acknowledged that more could be done to exchange good practice. Some innovative work on the care of juveniles which had been done across the sectors had been successfully transferred from the private sector to the public sector and vice versa. And the public sector had developed offending behaviour programmes which sought to change a prisoner's erratic or aggressive behaviour. These programmes helped to reduce re-offending and were increasingly being used by private sector as well as public sector prisons. Governors and directors had also been encouraged to move from one sector to another and there was now some two-way traffic at this level.[10]

Mutual support

11. The Home Office stressed that the two sectors supported one another in times of crisis and that co-operation between the two sectors in such situations was exemplary. For example, during a very serious incident at Lincoln prison in autumn 2002, some of the staff who helped to reassert control came from private sector prisons. The private sector was not paid when it offered mutual aid to public sector prisons in the same way that the public sector would not be paid for mutual aid to private sector prisons.[11]

2   C&AG's Report, paras 12, 2.18, Fig 13 Back

3   Qq 11-12, 18, 89-92 Back

4   Qq 12, 18-23, 27-28; C&AG's Report, para 2.20, Fig 16 Back

5   Qq 11, 18 Back

6   C&AG's Report, para 3.15; Qs 14-15 Back

7   Qq 77-78, 110, 122; C&AG's Report, para 3.6 Back

8   Qq 25, 136-142 Back

9   C&AG's Report, para 3.16; Q 172 Back

10   C&AG's Report, paras 3.13, 3.20; Qq 119-120, 131, 177-179 Back

11   Qq 159-160 Back

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