Birmingham Prison, in Winson Green, is set to be taken over, after a highly critical report by official inspectors warned that management was poor and prisoners felt unsafe.
Justice Secretary Jack Straw announced that private firms will be invited to tender for the contract to run the site, as he announced a series of reforms to prison policy in the House of Commons.
The Prison Officers Association reacted with fury and threatened strike action to stop what it called “privatisation” of the prison. As expected, Mr Straw confirmed that he was scrapping plans to build three “Titan” prisons, each holding 2,500 people.
Instead, there will be five new smaller prisons designed to house 1,500, with the first two in Dagenham, in London, and Chelmsford, Essex. The locations of the remaining three facilities will be announced later.
Speaking to the House of Commons, Mr Straw said Birmingham Prison in Soho, widely known as Winson Green prison, was one of two prisons that would be offered to the private sector to run.
He told MPs: “Two poorly performing public prisons will be market-tested this year, Birmingham and Wellingborough. Public, private and third sector providers will all be invited to bid.”
The Prison Officers Association accused Mr Straw of “betraying” public sector workers and vowed to fight the decision.
Colin Moses, the association’s national chairman, said: “The announcement today by Jack Straw is nothing short of a total betrayal of public services by New Labour. The Government’s plans to aggressively market test public sector prisons shows the total disregard to a public sector ethos and will make prisons more dangerous for prisoners, staff and the general public.”
He added: “We will not stand by and be threatened by a Government whose failed penal policies have seen huge rises in assaults on prisoners and staff, and a continual breakdown in prison discipline.
“The POA will consider all responses including strike action should the Government continue its vicious and unbalanced approach to professional public sector workers”.
Brian Caton, the association’s General Secretary, said: “The POA is two weeks away from its Annual Conference in Southport and will no doubt debate the attacks on the Union, Prison Service staff and the public services.”
Management has been put out to tender at five prisons across the country in recent years. The prison service succeeded in retaining control at two sites, including HMS Blakenhurst in Redditch, Worcestershire, after submitting the successful bid and winning the contract.
The Chief Inspector of Prisons warned in 2007 that Birmingham Prison was failing to cope with the number of prisoners passing through its doors, following a surprise inspection.
A report warned: “We found inadequate entries and plans in the documentation for the support of potentially suicidal prisoners; and those new to the prison spent considerable periods in poorly-equipped cells, with a minimal regime.
“Though there was evidence of support for individual prisoners, and we did not believe that Birmingham was an unsafe prison, those procedures urgently need to be reviewed and closely monitored.”
It added: “We found that there were high levels of use of force against prisoners, a proportion of which appeared unnecessary.”
Muslim prisoners believed they were treated unfairly by prison staff, the inspectors found. They warned: “Half said they had been victimised by staff; a third said they had been victimised by other prisoners; nearly two-thirds said they had felt unsafe.”
The report also found that the prison was failing to prepare prisoners for life outside jail. It said Birmingham Prison faced a difficult task because of overcrowding in every part of the prison service, but added: “This inspection found that the prison was not responding sufficiently proactively and robustly to the challenges it now faced.”