Inspection found 'appalling, chaotic conditions' in HMP Birmingham

By agency reporter
December 5, 2018

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons has renewed his call for an independent assessment as to how HMP Birmingham, one of Britain’s biggest jails, descended into appalling, chaotic conditions in just 18 months.

Publishing his full report on the inspection of the prison in the summer of 2018, Peter Clarke said he hoped the importance of understanding the deterioration and learning from it to prevent a repetition elsewhere was not overlooked in the urgent work to improve conditions.

The state of the prison, run at the time by the private contractor G4S, so troubled Mr Clarke that he invoked the rarely used Urgent Notification (UN) Protocol publicly to demand action from the Secretary of State for Justice. Within days the prison was taken back into public control for the first time since 2011.

Mr Clarke recalled that in his UN letter to David Gauke he had made clear that factors in his decision were his “lack of confidence in the prison to make improvements” and “the inertia that seemed to have gripped those responsible for monitoring and managing the contracts and those meant to be delivering action on the ground.”

He added: “In my letter I called for an honest appraisal of how the prison had been allowed to slip into crisis. Why was it that those with responsibility for Birmingham either did not see these problems unfolding or seemed incapable of acting decisively when they did? Through the process of improvement and rectification that I trust will now follow, I hope that the need to learn from what happened is not lost.”

HMP Birmingham is a category B local prison serving courts in the country’s second largest city as well as other parts of the West Midlands. Holding up to 1,450 adult men ranging from those recently remanded to others serving significant sentences, it is a “large, complex and extremely important institution.” It has a very high turnover of short-stay prisoners.

The previous inspection in February 2017 found a prison “still reeling” from a major disturbance in late 2016 but with a “clear determination to recover and rebuild.” The contrast with findings at the unannounced inspection in 2018 “could not have been starker,” Mr Clarke said.

“Far from recovering, the prison had deteriorated dramatically and was in an appalling state. Against all four of our healthy prison tests – safety, respect, purposeful activity and rehabilitation and release planning – we assessed outcomes as poor, our lowest assessment. This is only the second time we have made such judgements. Conditions at Birmingham were among the worst we have seen in recent years.”

Among the most troubling evidence, inspectors found:

  • The prison was exceptionally violent and fundamentally unsafe, with many prisoners and staff living and working in fear. Many frightened and vulnerable prisoners ‘self-isolated’ in locked cells but could not escape the bullying and intimidation as urine and faeces were thrown through their door panels;
  • Drug taking was barely concealed, delinquency was rife and individuals could behave badly with near impunity. Wings often felt chaotic and rowdy, according to inspectors, and the report quotes one prisoner describing “a war zone, inmates walking around like zombies, high on Spice” – the synthetic drug;
  • Control in the prison was tenuous, with staff often not knowing where prisoners were. Staff were poorly led and many lacked the confidence or the competence to set about retrieving this situation;
  • Many prisoners lived in squalor and little was done to adequately occupy them, leaving many simply to mill around on wings;
  • The prison was failing in its responsibility to protect the public by preparing prisoners adequately for release, including hundreds of sex offenders. Those responsible for organising family visits did not know all the prisoners who were not allowed contact with children.

Mr Clarke added: “The challenges facing this prison are huge. Managers and staff need support if they are to turn the establishment around. The helpful action plan published by the Secretary of State provides an important framework for progress and is a start, but there also needs to be accountability among those implementing the plan. It is crucial for there to be transparent, open conversations about the state of the prison and the progress being made. It will undoubtedly take some time for Birmingham to make the improvements needed, and as an Inspectorate we leave the prison with a number of recommendations.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, said: “Following the riot in 2016, Birmingham faced significant operational challenges, particularly on violence and drug use. We required action from G4S and – as the inspection notes – progress was too slow and ultimately insufficient. That is why we took decisive action to step-in and take control of the prison. We immediately reduced the prison population and appointed one of our most experienced Governors, with the support of experienced officers, to get the prison back into shape. Good progress is being made. The prison is safer, cleaner, calmer and more ordered. But there is more to do and we will continue to work closely with G4S to ensure these improvements endure.”

* Read the full report on HMP Birmingham here

* HM Inspectorate of Prisons


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