The 'partnership' between the NHS and the prison service came under pressure this week when prisons and probation minister Paul Boateng warned Brixton Prison in south London to 'shape up' or be privatised .

The warning came in a return visit to the prison one month after a spate of attempted suicides led to 'urgent action' to improve healthcare facilities and boost nursing levels.

As the prison published a wider strategic plan for reform, Mr Boateng said: 'Brixton in its current state must be regarded as a failing institution.'

He stressed: 'No-one should doubt that if within 12 months following on from the review the prison has not met the objectives set. . . Brixton will be subjected to market testing.'

But Mr Boateng said that outcome would not necessarily reflect a failure of the 'partnership' policy launched in the spring by the prison service and the NHS Executive. He described health as 'only one aspect of a massive programme of reform that needs to take place'.

Measures to tackle healthcare so far include the provision of eight full-time nurse equivalents.

Brixton's strategic plan promises support by the joint NHS and prison service taskforce.

The prison will continue to analyse changes to court catchment areas last year which have given it a higher proportion of mentally ill inmates.