HM Chief Inspector of Prisons has called on the Justice Secretary to launch an urgent and independent enquiry to understand how the privately run HMP Birmingham, one of Britain’s biggest jails, has “slipped into crisis” in only 18 months.

Inspectors found the prison in “an appalling state” with high violence, widespread bullying, squalid living conditions and poor control by fearful staff, who suffered an arson attack on their supposedly secure car park during the inspection. It is only the second jail ever to be assessed by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) as poor, its lowest assessment, across all key aspects of prison life.

Peter Clarke told David Gauke that the prison had suffered a “dramatic deterioration” since the last inspection in early 2017, when inspectors found it was still shocked after disturbances at the end of 2016 but was showing a determination to improve. Just 18 months later it was assessed as poor in HMIP’s four ‘healthy prison tests’ – safety, respect, purposeful activity and rehabilitation and release planning.

HMP Birmingham is managed by the private contractor G4S, in a contract with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). Mr Clarke said he believed no long-term progress could be achieved until the reasons for such a swift and dramatic decline in Birmingham were fully understood. However, he stressed, an enquiry into what had gone wrong with the contract management and delivery must not be allowed to stand in the way of the “urgent and pressing need to address the squalor, violence, prevalence of drugs and looming lack of control that currently afflict HMP Birmingham.”

Mr Clarke has invoked the Urgent Notification protocol, signed in November 2017 and designed to enable the Chief Inspector to put the Secretary of State publicly on notice that urgent action is needed to address significant concerns at a jail. The protocol has only been used twice before, at HMP Exeter and HMP Nottingham. Mr Clarke today published the letter he sent on 16 August to Mr Gauke, with a briefing note drawn closely from the debrief for the Director of the prison at the end of the inspection. The letter and note depict some of the most disturbing evidence that inspectors, who visited Birmingham between 30 July and 9 August 2018, have seen in any prison:

  • Over the last year, Birmingham was the most violent local prison in England and Wales. Those perpetrating the violence “could do so with near impunity.”
  • Inspectors saw many prisoners under the influence of drugs and blatant drug use went largely unchallenged.
  • Control across the prison was tenuous, with staff often not knowing where their prisoners were and “a general lack of order on some wings.”
  • Many staff were inexperienced, lacking confidence and skills, and were poorly led. Many, also, were fearful. During the inspection, criminals launched an arson attack on the supposedly secure staff car park.
  • Communal areas were filthy, with cockroaches, vermin, blood and vomit left uncleaned. Staff and managers appeared to have become inured to these conditions, some of the worst inspectors had seen. In older wings, virtually every window was damaged and many were missing.
  • Education, work and training were ‘inadequate’ and measures to protect the public from high-risk men – while in prison and on release – were very poor.

Concluding his letter, Mr Clarke wrote:

“I was astounded that HMP Birmingham had been allowed to deteriorate so dramatically over the 18 months since the previous inspection. A factor in my decision to invoke the Urgent Notification protocol is that at present I can have no confidence in the ability of the prison to make improvements. There has clearly been an abject failure of contract management and delivery…The inertia that seems to have gripped both those monitoring the contract and delivering it on the ground has led to one of Britain’s leading jails slipping into a state of crisis.”

Notes

  1. Mr Clarke’s Urgent Notification letter to Mr Gauke, and the accompanying note, can be found here.
  2. On 30 November 2017, Mr Clarke and David Lidington, then Justice Secretary, signed the Urgent Notification protocol – an extension of the existing working protocol between HMI Prisons and the Ministry of Justice. Mr Clarke said at the time: “The Secretary of State has accepted that he and his successors will be held publicly accountable for delivering an urgent, robust and effective response when HMI Prisons assesses that treatment or conditions in a jail raise such significant concerns that urgent action is required. The protocol requires the Secretary of State to respond to an Urgent Notification letter from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons within 28 days. The Chief Inspector’s notification and the Secretary of State’s response will both be published.
  3. The most recent two-week inspection of HMP Birmingham began on 30 July 2018 and ended on 9 August. The inspection was unannounced.
  4. The debriefing note accompanying the Urgent Notification letter to the Secretary of State is drawn from the initial HMI Prisons findings shared with the Director of HMP Birmingham. As is the case with all HMI Prisons inspections, these early findings are indicative and may be changed at the discretion of the Chief Inspector, after due consideration or following the emergence of new evidence (all HMI Prisons evidence and conclusions are subject to a rigorous fact-checking process). However, it was the view of the Chief Inspector that the initial findings at HMP Birmingham were clear and concerning enough to warrant his decision to invoke the Urgent Notification protocol.
  5. A full report on HMP Birmingham will be published in due course, around 18 weeks after the end of the inspection.
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