PORTLAND'S Verne Prison looks set to be turned into an immigration detention centre.

The former Victorian military barracks, transformed into a jail more than 60 years ago, could begin a new lease of life as a Home Office immigration unit housing people waiting to be removed from the UK.

It is understood the ageing Category C training prison, which has a large number of foreign national inmates, was under threat of closure but has been identified by as a suitable site for a detention centre.

If the move is agreed, prisoners would be transferred to other sites and the Verne would close for a few months towards the end of this year while work is undertaken to make it suitable before it is reopened in early 2014.

The number of uniformed prison officers is expected to increase with the Verne's new role but it is unclear what the effect will be on the prison's support staff involved in various roles. The Verne employs about 300 people but a number of other businesses in the community benefit indirectly.

The Ministry of Justice said no decisions had been reached yet about the Verne.

Immigration removal centres, previously known as detention centres, are temporary holding areas for failed asylum seekers or people awaiting deportation. Some detainees are former foreign national prisoners.

Centres have healthcare facilities, libraries, education classes and access to on-the-job training.

It is thought the Verne could work in the same way as the detention centre at Haslar near Gosport in Hampshire which is operated by HM Prison Service under a service level agreement.

Like the Verne, it was built as a military barracks and later became a prison. It was re-designated as a removal centre and now holds adult males aged 18 and over who have been detained under the Immigration Act.

Haslar is one of 12 detention centres currently operating in the UK.

Some are mixed centres but mainly accommodate single people awaiting to be put on the plane home. Families stay in accommodation near Gatwick Airport.

South Dorset MP Richard Drax said: “As I understand it no decisions have been made about the Verne and negotiations are ongoing with the Home Office.”

Mr Drax said the immigration centre would be a new role for the prison and that governor James Lucas was pleased that the role was being considered.

He added: “The Verne is a prison used for incarcerating people and that role would continue although different people would be held there.

“The place would stay open, jobs will be retained and it would still require services which is good news for the island.”

The Verne is an open-style prison with walls but work has been undertaken in recent years to strengthen the perimeter. It has been praised as an effective jail but various aspects of its work have come in for criticism.

In a report in 2008, the prison was criticised to such an extent for not meeting the needs of inmates that Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers believed the best option would be to turn it into a centre exclusively for foreign prisoners.


Prison Officers' reaction

Tim Roberts from the Prison Officers' Association (POA) at the Verne said: “We just don't know what's happening at the moment. We're hoping a decision will be made at the end of the month.

“Our cards had been marked for closure because of how old the prison is. So we welcome this move if it happens because it will keep us open and keep people in work. We expect to get another 40 officers here.

“It will be a different environment; a more challenging environment. There will have to be work done here to upgrade security and meet certain standards.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) and UK Border Agency are working together to ensure that there is sufficient prison and detention capacity for foreign national prisoners and immigration detainees.

“As part of that, the two organisations are looking at where such offenders are currently held and possible future arrangements. No decisions have been taken about HMP The Verne.”


Islanders' mixed response

TOWN councillor for Underhill Tim Munro said there could be mixed fortunes as there could be an extra burden placed on the community if families were kept at the centre and support structures would be needed to put in place.

He also wondered what would become of the prison's extensive education facilities.

But Coun Munro said jobs could be created in the move and new services provided in the community.

Mayor of Weymouth and Portland at Tophill councillor Margaret Leicester said she didn't think the public would notice much difference if the Verne changes roles.

She said: “The people who will be affected are those that are working there and I hope they managed to retain their jobs.”

Coun Leicester used to service on the prison's independent review board. She described it as a secure and enclosed institution but that inmates had the freedom to move around.

She said: “There are old buildings there but they weren't being used, there are more modern blocks for the prisoners.

“It's always been a good learning prison. I remember some used to write home saying they were studying at 'Verne college.'”

Andy Matthews of the Portland Community Partnership said: “Our concerns would be the implications for staff and that the ongoing security issues are maintained.”

Mr Matthews also wondered if the new role would change the way the prison works with the rest of the community.


History of HMP The Verne

THE Verne Prison opened in 1949 on the site of a former military barracks. It began life as the Verne Citadel designed by Captain Crossman of the Royal Engineers and built by convicts between 1860 and 1872.

It was a 50-acre fortress for 1,000 troops with gun emplacements.

Form 1903 it was used as an infantry barracks and the guns were removed but the emplacements remain.

The last military personnel at the Verne were men of the Royal Engineers who left in 1948.

The Verne prison is home to about 600 offenders including life sentence prisoners and those serving determinate sentences, mainly four years or more.

If prisoners are well behaved and meet certain criteria they may be downgraded to a Category B or C facility like the Verne.

About sixty per cent of the prisoners are foreign nationals with more than 50 different nationalities represented.The Verne is classed as an open prison because prisoners are in rooms rather than cells and have their own key.

It has historically been characterised by a strong sense of community and very good staff-prisoner relationships. The men it holds have had much more freedom within the confines of the prison than is usually the case in a category C training prison.


Prison praised in report

IN A recent inspection report the Verne was praised as an effective prison which needed to develop better employment and resettlement opportunities.

Inspectors were pleased to find that: few prisoners felt unsafe and there were low levels of violence good staff-prisoner relationships the Jail House Café was a successful social enterprise the prison was building links with local employers Concerns included: overly rigid criteria were applied for accepting prisoners into the prison, weak justification was used for transferring prisoners out prisoners from black and minority ethnic communities and Muslim prisoners were more negative about the prison than the rest of the population there was too little purposeful activity available resettlement activity required improvement THE UK has one of the largest networks of immigration detention facilities in Europe.

Moves to detain people followed concerns about the government's ability to control the increasing number of asylum applications.


Detention centres in the UK

Detention centres have in the past been criticised due to complaints about overcrowding, security and conditions.

The centre at Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire is the largest of its kind in Europe and has been surrounded by controversy since it opened.

In 2002 violence erupted at the centre linked to claims against treatment of a detainee. It resulted in a fire which caused extensive damage.

Opponents of detention centres argue it is wrong to imprison or restrict the movements of people who have committed no crime.

Immigrant support groups say detainees feel they are treated like criminals when their crimes have been to flee their own country.

In 2007, 26 asylum seekers escaped from a centre near Oxford.

The collation government has since changed the rules on immigration centres so that children are no longer held there.