HMP Birmingham – a mixed bag of some progress in tackling violence and squalor, but weaknesses in education and management of sex offenders

HMP Birmingham has made reasonable progress in tackling the violence, drug use and squalor evident in a disturbing inspection of the prison in the summer of 2018.

However, an Independent Review of Progress (IRP) in May 2019 found a mixed overall picture, with insufficient progress in tackling antisocial behaviour and in improving work, training and education for most prisoners. There was no meaningful progress in work to support the large number of sex offenders to address their offending behaviour.

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Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, recalled that HMP Birmingham was found to be in an “appalling state” during an inspection in August 2018, with the treatment of prisoners among the worst inspectors had seen in recent years. He was so concerned that he invoked the rarely-used Urgent Notification Protocol. Birmingham was then run by G4S but it has since been announced that it will return to the public sector.

At the IRP visit in May 2019, Mr Clarke said, inspectors found that the prison “had worked exceptionally hard to address violence. The causes of violence were now well understood and a range of actions had been taken to make the prison safer.” Levels of violence had decreased since 2018, though they remained considerably higher than the average for similar prisons.

There had been no progress at all on the recommendation that:

  • The prison should implement a strategy to manage and progress sex offenders in order to address their offending behaviour, who cannot be appropriately progressed, specific and sufficient offending behaviour work should be provided at Birmingham. The skills mix in the offender management unit should be improved, to reflect the need to work effectively with a large high-risk population.

There had been insufficient progress on recommendations that:

  • the perpetrators of violence and antisocial behaviour should be subject to appropriate administrative or disciplinary actions
  • all victims of violence and antisocial behaviour should be identified and assisted with comprehensive support plans which include access to regime activities
  • progress leaders and managers have made in implementing an education, skills and work provision that meets the prison population’s needs, including the prioritisation of sentenced prisoners’ session attendance
  • English and mathematics development and pre-release preparation
  • there should be a fundamental improvement in the quality of care for prisoners in distress and those at risk of self-harm who should be properly supported, and triggers addressed such as poor living conditions and isolation.

There had been reasonable progress on recommendations that:

  • The prison’s drug supply and demand strategy should be further developed, to identify additional practical measures to stop the ingress of drugs and reduce demand more robustly. It should include measures to develop a culture that does not tolerate drug use and actively supports those who are using to stop.
  • Staff should be effectively supervised, coached and trained to maintain appropriate professional standards and provide a proper balance of care and control.
  • All steps, including consultation with prisoners, should be taken to understand and analyse the causes of violence and antisocial behaviour. Actions should be taken to reduce violence, and the effectiveness of these should be monitored over time.
  • Gaps and weaknesses in public protection arrangements should be identified and urgent remedial action should be taken to protect victims and potential victims.
  • What progress have leaders and managers made in identifying and addressing fully the needs of prisoners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, who attend education programmes, so they achieve to an appropriately high level? Addresses previous inspection report recommendation.
  • Measures to ensure prisoners faced sanctions for their poor behaviour looked encouraging but had only recently been introduced and were not yet working effectively. Similarly, considerable efforts had been made to identify victims of violence and bullying but as yet too little support had been offered.

Inspectors no longer observed overt drug use on the wings, Mr Clarke said. However, one in four prisoners were still testing positive for drugs “and I found it inexplicable that the prison had been unable to secure funding for equipment such as a body scanner to help them stop drugs entering the prison.”

Relationships between staff and prisoners had improved, and the prison felt more ordered and controlled. In August 2018 inspectors had found that control in the “fundamentally unsafe” prison was tenuous. In 2019, “staff were more accountable, better supported and more able to establish appropriate boundaries and challenge poor prisoner behaviour.” The prison was also now much cleaner.

The prison had made reasonable progress in identifying and addressing the needs of prisoners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. But progress across other areas of education, skills and work, assessed by Ofsted inspectors, was insufficient. “The provision did not meet most prisoners’ needs – most critically the substantial number of prisoners requiring English and mathematics education. Attendance at activities was low.”

Many of the weaknesses in public protection arrangements evident in 2018 had been addressed. However, Mr Clarke added: “The prison had devised a strategy to manage and progress the substantial number of prisoners convicted of sexual offences but, with no support or agreement from across the wider HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), the strategy was unrealistic and likely to fail.”

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“It is only right that I recognise the scale of the task to improve the treatment and conditions for prisoners at Birmingham. It is huge. There is no doubt that the prison faces a long journey of recovery. It is very clear that the governor, through his vision and very visible leadership, has energised the staff and undoubted pride and optimism are emerging around the prison. I think that optimism is well founded. Birmingham has already made some tangible improvements and has the capacity for further change and improvement if it retains strong leadership and if those responsible for Birmingham at national and regional level provide it with the support necessary to sustain what has begun.”

Mark Leech, Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales writes:

On the face of it, this is a fairly balanced report, showing that Birmingham under the step-in powers (that become permanent next month) has made real progress under the Governorship of the rightly-regarded Paul Newton – but the problem I have with it, and it’s a failure running through all of Peter Clarke’s reporting – including this one –  is the complete lack of detail in terms of support for his findings.

All Inspectorate reports contain ‘partially achieved’ assessments, but the Chief Inspector has publicly confirmed there is no criteria for these assessments; it depends on the judgement of the inspector on the day. Moreover, requests for copies of the notes taken by Inspectors to support those assessments have been refused by the Chief Inspector.

The same flaw has regrettably infected these new ‘Interim Reviews of Progress’.

For example in this report, he lists areas where there has been ‘no progress’, ‘insufficient progress’, and ‘reasonable progress’, but he gives absolutely no detail whatsoever as to the evidence to support those conclusions nor, where he finds a lack of progress, does he set out what needs to be done for progress to be made.

This is contrary to previous Chief Inspectors who when they made assessments provided clear evidence to support their conclusions.

This has been a constant feature of this chief inspector and it is one that he has continually failed to remedy.

Additionally, while Clarke makes sweeping statements such as he made about Bristol prison recently (that the prison was fully staffed) he gives no details about that staffing, nor the basis upon which the calculations as to a full complement of staff are based.

A further common flaw in Clarke’s reports has been to make recommendations without any thought as to where the resources are to come from to implement those recommendations – and he later then castigates the prison for their failure to implement those very same recommendations which in many cases were destined to fil for a lack of resources to implement them from the beginning.

Peter Clarke is due to retire next February from this role, my hope is that whoever replaces him brings a greater understanding of the problems faced by our prisons than Clarke has brought to the role.

Read the Report