The government is to put out to tender all its dedicated juvenile jails that hold children under 18 in a departure in Whitehall's privatisation programme, the Guardian has learned.
The four institutions are to be offered as a job lot to be run by a private prison company in a deal thought to be worth £50m as part of an attempt to boost competition and "choice" in the penal system. It is also thought to be designed to tempt US prison firms into the British market.
The institutions are Huntercombe near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire; Warren Hill, in Woodbridge, Suffolk; Wetherby in West Yorkshire and Werrington in Stoke-on-Trent. Warren Hill has a special unit which holds teenage murderers and others given very long sentences.
They hold 1,000 offenders including some of the most dangerous. They - with Ashfield near Bristol, which is privately run by Premier Prison Services - are the only dedicated prisons for the under 18s. Other publicly-run young offender institutions also hold teenagers but they are mixed with young adults up to the age of 21.
The leak of the plan, which is being proposed by Martin Narey, the chief executive of the new National Offender Management Service, has caused alarm among reformers and prison unions.
Frances Crook, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "We have not seen any proof that private prison companies are any better at running child jails."
Colin Moses, chairman of the Prison Officers' Association, said it would hold an emergency meeting today to consider boycotting the tender process. "They should remain in the public sector, not for ideological reasons, but because those who are responsible for the most vulnerable in our society have a duty not to make a profit from their suffering."
At Ashfield the situation became so bad two years ago that Mr Narey invoked his powers for the first time to replace a private prison director with a state prison governor. But the record of child jails run by the Prison Service is also poor, with 11 suicides of teenagers in the past five years.
The scheme is being considered by Home Office ministers and if, as expected, it goes ahead next year, the four institutions will become the first public sector prisons in Britain to be handed over to the private sector. In the past the government proposed privatising Brixton but no company was interested enough to bid for a single failing inner city south London prison.
The four all have relatively good records and some have undergone recent refurbishment. Earlier this year the merger of Group 4 and Securicor halved the number of private prison companies operating in Britain and Mr Narey has tried to persuade US companies to bid for British contracts.
The two largest private prison operators in the US, the Geo Group and the Corrections Corporation of America, have been involved in running British prisons and immigration detention centres in the last 10 years but have both pulled out in the last few years.
Mr Narey made clear he was going to offer "clusters" of prisons to increase interest and the four juvenile jails are to be the first "themed cluster" to be put out to tender.
It is believed they have been chosen to pioneer this programme - known as "contestability" in the Whitehall jargon - because unlike many state prisons they already have defined contracts as part of their relationship with the Youth Justice Board, which "buys" places at each of the jails.
Harry Fletcher of Napo, the probation union, said that "contestability" was another word for privatisation or market testing and was a "cynical attempt to drive down costs".
It is believed that an attempt to put the work of the north-west probation area out to tender will follow next.
© The Guardian