Stormont considers privatisation of Northern Ireland's prisons as way to help tackle looming budget crisis
The privatisation of sections of Northern Ireland's prison estate is to be considered by Stormont's justice committee in a controversial bid to reduce Prison Service running costs.
Members of the justice committee are to visit a privately-run prison in England as part of a fact-finding mission into the benefits of a jail managed and run by a private security firm, the Belfast Telegraph has learned.
While contracts have been issued to private firms in England and Wales for the day-to-day running of prisons since the early 1990s, all of our jails are under public sector control.
Justice committee members have said that privatisation would save money. However, the Prison Officers' Association (POA) warned that such a move would be a "disaster".
"This would be a very bad thing. It would be a disaster. I'm very disappointed that the justice committee is going over to look at these prisons and considering this," said POA chairman Finlay Spratt.
Mr Spratt added: "Prisons should be in the public sector. They should not be in private hands. For these companies it is about profiteering, not rehabilitation of prisoners. There have also been many problems with these privately-run facilities."
Discussions are at an early stage and the committee is yet to choose which prisons to visit, however Stormont's Justice Department, run by David Ford, is under massive pressure to deliver large budget savings.
It is estimated each prisoner here costs the taxpayer more than £75,000 per year and there are more than 1,700 prisoners in Northern Ireland's jails – Maghaberry, Magilligan and Hydebank Wood.
"We are just wanting to see how, or if, privatisation could fit into Northern Ireland. I am not saying we should privatise all of our prisons, but there could maybe be elements of the delivery of services in Northern Ireland that we could consider privatising," justice committee member Stewart Dickson said.
The Alliance MLA added: "It is with a blank page that we are going to look at this. Some of the private prisons in England are cited as best practice. Everything is up for discussion. We have to look at all of the options in terms of what delivers best practice and value for money. I appreciate they are not without problems, but why would we not go and look at this?"
DUP committee member Jim Wells said that he did not foresee a lot of support for a privately-run prison in Northern Ireland.
"I do not think there is much appetite for it, but perhaps at some stage a limited range of services might be outsourced to a private company. I wouldn't rule out the privatisation of some aspects," said Mr Wells.
He added: "The cost per prisoner here is extremely high and the Justice Department will be under a fair bit of pressure as a result of welfare reform, so it is important that it is looked at. The shift to the private sector would be a long time away and a privately-run prison here would not be in my lifetime."
In England and Wales there are 14 prisons operated by private firms, which between them hold 13,500 prisoners, or 15% of the UK's prison population. Two of three prisons rated "of serious concern" last year by the Ministry of Justice are privately-run.
In England and Wales 14 out of 139 prisons are operated by private companies.
The three private companies who manage UK prisons are G4S, Serco and Sodexo.
G4S manages six UK prisons, three secure training centres, and two immigration centres. Serco operate four adult prisons in the UK, as well as a Young Offenders Institution and a secure training centre. Sodexo Justice Services operate four UK prisons.