Prison bosses in Northern Ireland should look at how privately run jails operate to find ways to cut the "eye-watering" costs of running the service, the Prisoner Ombudsman has urged.
Pauline McCabe said that while the current cost per prisoner place in Northern Ireland is around £75,000 per annum, one private prison she visited recently in the north of England operates at a rate of £19,000.
Mrs McCabe acknowledged that the comparison was not fully like-for-like, as healthcare costs in Northern Ireland are factored in, but she said a huge gulf in cost still existed.
The ombudsman stressed that private facilities were still delivering a high standard of service despite their much lower bottom line.
"They are in business to make profit and therefore how they manage their costs is absolutely crucial," she said. "But what is really important and what interested me is that they have really very good service level agreements in place.
"People are worried that if you bring in the private sector the consequence of that will be that standards will fall and there won't be the same concern for rehabilitation. In fact the opposite is true. They have a service level agreement which is really demanding in terms of specifying what they are obliged to deliver. They have to be efficient and effective because that's their business on the one hand, but there are really good controls in place to make sure they can't sacrifice quality."
Privately managed prisons were first introduced in the UK in the 1990s. There are currently 14 such facilities in England and Wales.
Mrs McCabe said some private prisons had a commitment to reduce reoffending rates written into their contracts.
"People will be very sniffy about the private sector but actually we can learn an awful lot from looking at how they do it because there is nothing that focuses the mind like a bottom line," she added.
The ombudsman, who highlighted the issue in her annual report, said any move to introduce private sector involvement in Northern Ireland was a matter for politicians. But she recommended that Northern Ireland Prison Service should at least consider initiatives such as seconding staff to and from the private sector in a bid to learn lessons. "As a minimum I think we can learn a lot from studying what they do and how they do it," she said.