Imagine you're the Minister of Justice. Your government has a tough approach to crime which has won plaudits from the tabloids. The only problem is that Britain's prison population is at an all time high, with more prisoners than places to put them. What do you do?
One option, of course, would be to lower sentences, but it's risky: the Daily Mail would have you for breakfast. Attempts to lower crime rates have so far proved stubbornly unsuccessful. That leaves only one option: more prisons - and quickly.
So last February John Reid, then still the man in charge of such matters, announced plans to extend Britain's creaking prison system by a massive 8,000 places. Most of these will be created by extending existing jails or, in one case, converting a disused mental hospital. But the announcement also included plans for two brand new prisons in London and Merseyside.
The thing is, announcing new prisons is easy. (So easy, in fact, that the government did it twice: Reid's statement was a rehash of one made by Charles Clarke a year earlier.) But actually building the things is rather harder - particularly when your department is facing a budget freeze until 2011. Luckily there's a trusted way of spreading spending across 30 years and slashing a prison's running costs, all in one go: the private finance initiative.
While they've been less high profile than the schools and hospitals, Britain already has nine PFI prisons. And in some ways they've been pretty successful. The new jails have been built quickly, and cost a good 15% less to run than their government-owned equivalents.
What's more, they've been commended for taking innovative approaches to training and other activities, and for the respect with which they treat their inmates ("This is the first time in 10 years anyone has called me 'Mister'", one rather confused prisoner told a government inspector in 2003). Indeed, the Prison Inspectorate's report on Altcourse Prison, Merseyside, in 1999, said it was "by some way the best local prison we have inspected."
But, of course, not all reports have been quite so glowing. Concerns have been raised about both the safety record of PFI prisons, and the effectiveness of their rehabiliation efforts. Prisoners in private jails are more likely to be involved in serious assaults - and more likely to re-offend once they've been released.
One problem is that PFI prisons negotiate their own staff contracts - and thus pay their officers a good 50% less than the state sector. This does a good job of cutting costs. But it means private prisons tend to have fewer, younger, and less experienced warders. They also don't tend to stick around for very long. A 2002 report from a government auditor gloomily concluded that, "The upshot of trimming costs is that safety may be compromised for both staff and prisoners."
An even bigger concern is the effect private prisons may have on criminal justice policy. For one thing, private jailers are paid by the prisoner. This gives them an incentive to pack in as many inmates as possible, encouraging overcrowding.
Even more worryingly, the existance of private prisons may actually stop the government from taking steps to reduce Britain's burgeoning prison population. "What we'd like to see is a shrinking market," says Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust. "But good business practice demands that you grow your market. A vested interest will develop in having a sizable prison population."
And while the government is dependent on that vested interest to escape the current crisis, it's likely to have some influence on policy. Already there are signs this is happening: there are moves afoot to further deregulate private prisons, by removing the government-appointed controllers that monitor them. This is happening despite a BBC report on Rye Hill jail earlier this year, which found widespread intimidation of staff, and prisoners who had easy access to drugs and mobile phones. "Private prisons are a very expensive way not to cut crime," adds Lyon.
This may be why, for all the enthusiasm with which the new prisons were announced, the government has kept strangely quiet about the way they'll be paid for. But in hushed tones, the Ministry of Justice will admit the role PFI plays in their plans - and the private sector are licking their lips in anticipation. The justice ministry get their prisons, the police get their cells back, and the government gets to look tough in front of the tabloids. Everybody's happy.
Except, perhaps, the prisoners and the guards.