Ministry of Justice Take Over Control of HMP Birmingham

Staff at one of Britain’s largest prisons were found asleep or locked in offices during an inspection that uncovered “appalling” squalor and violence, a watchdog has said, as it emerged the Government is taking over the privately-run jail.

In a scathing critique, Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke warned HMP Birmingham has “slipped into crisis” following a “dramatic deterioration” in the last 18 months.

The Ministry of Justice has now assumed control of the establishment from G4S for at least six months.

G4S welcomed the move, saying the prison, which it has managed since October 2011, faces “exceptional challenges”.

The highly unusual intervention came as Mr Clarke warned that levels of violence were the highest for any local jail in the country, with some inmates saying they felt unsafe even behind locked cell doors – while perpetrators could act with “near impunity”.

His assessment found blatant use of illegal substances went largely unchallenged amid a “looming lack of control”. At one point, staff were said to have shrugged when inspectors pointed out that drugs were being smoked.

It also emerged that the chairman of the prison’s Independent Monitoring Board had raised concerns in May that prisoners, rather than staff, appeared to be controlling many of the wings.

After an unannounced inspection of the prison concluded earlier this month, Mr Clarke triggered the “urgent notification” scheme to alert the Government to his findings.

In a letter to Justice Secretary David Gauke, the chief inspector said staff were ineffective in maintaining even basic standards.

“It was often difficult to find officers, although we did find some asleep during prisoner lock-up periods,” he wrote. “On more than one occasion we found groups of staff who had locked themselves in their own offices.

“We were told this was to prevent them, when busy, from being distracted by prisoners – an explanation that was neither plausible nor acceptable.”

Mr Clarke noted that many staff felt fearful and unsafe after a number of incidents, including an arson attack that destroyed nine vehicles in a car park.

HMP Birmingham – the scene of a major riot in 2016 – was rated “poor” in all four healthy prison tests.

Mr Clarke said he was “astounded” by the deterioration at the prison since it was last inspected in February 2017.

“There has clearly been an abject failure of contract management and delivery,” he concluded.

His assessment detailed how:

– Violence had increased, including serious assaults that left prisoners and staff requiring hospital treatment

– Communal areas in most wings were “filthy”, there were widespread problems with cockroaches and vermin, and blood and vomit was left uncleaned

– The smell of cannabis and other burning substances pervaded many areas, with Mr Clarke saying he felt “physically affected” by drugs in the atmosphere

– While some staff were clearly competent, relationships with inmates had deteriorated and there was a “general lack of order” on some wings

– In one bullying case a man had a poster with the message “Say No to BO” stuck on his door and was “hosed down” by other prisoners who put a fire hose through his observation panel.

In the wake of Mr Clarke’s findings, the MoJ confirmed it had taken over the running of HMP Birmingham for an initial six-month period at no additional cost to the taxpayer.

Announcing the decision, Prisons Minister Rory Stewart said: “What we have seen at Birmingham is unacceptable and it has become clear that drastic action is required to bring about the improvements we require.”

Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said: “This shocking situation underlines the dangerous consequences of the ever greater privatisation of our justice system.

“HMP Birmingham was the first publicly-run prison to be transferred to the private sector. This should be a nail in the coffin for the flawed idea of prison privatisation. The Government must scrap its recently announced plans to build yet more private prisons.”

Jerry Petherick, managing director of G4S Custody & Detention Services, said: “HMP Birmingham is an inner-city remand prison which faces exceptional challenges including increasingly high levels of prisoner violence towards staff and fellow prisoners.

“The well-being and safety of prisoners and prison staff is our key priority and we welcome the six month step-in and the opportunity to work with the Ministry of Justice to urgently address the issues faced at the prison.”

Built in 1849, HMP Birmingham is a category B facility for adult male inmates and had a population of 1,269 at the end of last month.

Mark Leech editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales said he welcomed the takeover.

Mr Leech said: “Take over has really been on the cards for over a year, the prison’s IMB Chairman warned the prison was on the verge of collapse months ago and no one took a blind bit of notice.

“This ignorance of IMB’s is what the new National Chairman of the IMB, Dame Anne Owers, was supposed to get a grip of, but since her appointment almost a year ago no one has heard a peep out of her – a shocking lack of visible leadership that should cause her to question her own position.”

Birmingham Prison – ‘The Worst Prison Riot Since Strangeways

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Authorities have regained control of one of the country’s biggest jails after trouble described as the worst since the infamous 1990 Strangeways Prison riot.

Hundreds of inmates were caught up in disorder after disturbances erupted across four wings of HMP Birmingham, lasting more than 12 hours.

Riot squads were deployed to the category B jail to restore order after reports of prisoners setting fire to stairwells, breaking a security chain and destroying paper records.

Specially-trained prison guards, known as “Tornado” squads from other parts of the country were backed up by around 25 riot police as they moved into the privately-run facility late on Friday.

Police had earlier closed the road and established a secure cordon around the main gate of the prison.

One prisoner is understood to have received a broken jaw and eye socket during the disturbances, while no prison staff were injured.

Broken windows and damaged walls were described as being left in the aftermath of the disruption, but sources said it had been “superficial”.

Mike Rolfe, national chairman of the Prison Officers Association, who last month protested over safety concerns, said more than 30 staff had left the prison in recent weeks and compared the trouble to the notorious Strangeways riot 26 years ago.

“This prison is a tough place to work, it serves a very big area, it serves a large, dangerous population of prisoners but it’s not unlike many other prisons up and down the country – ones that have very similar inmates,” he told BBC Radio Four’s The World Tonight.

“And we’ve been warning for a long time about the crisis in prisons and what we are seeing at Birmingham is not unique to Birmingham, but it certainly would seem that this is the most recent worst incident since the 1990 Strangeways riot.”

Mr Rolfe accused the Government of not funding the prison system properly and said such disturbances are becoming more frequent as a result.

The situation, in which keys giving access to residential prison areas were taken from an officer and inmates occupied some blocks and exercise facilities, will be investigated thoroughly, the Justice Secretary said.

Liz Truss said: “I want to pay tribute to the bravery and dedication of the prison officers who resolved this disturbance.

“I also want to give my thanks to West Midlands Police, who supported G4S and the Prison Service throughout the day, ambulance crews and the fire service who also provided assistance.

“This was a serious situation and a thorough investigation will now be carried out. Violence in our prisons will not be tolerated and those responsible will face the full force of the law.”

The city centre jail formerly known as Winson Green and run by G4S can hold up to 1,450 inmates, but it is understood around 260 prisoners were caught up in the incident.

Jerry Petherick, m anaging director for G4S custodial and detention, said the prisoners behind the trouble “showed a callous disregard for the safety of prisoners and staff”.

He added: “This disturbance will rightly be subject to scrutiny and we will work openly and transparently with the Ministry of Justice and other relevant authorities to understand the cause of today’s disorder.”

Former inmates at the jail where serial murderer Fred West hanged himself in 1995 have said they are not surprised at the disturbances, describing it as something that was “bound to happen”.

The latest disturbance is the third in English prisons in less than two months.

On November 6 a riot at category B Bedford Prison saw up to 200 inmates go on the rampage, flooding the jail’s gangways in chaotic scenes.

Just days earlier, on October 29, a national response unit had to be brought in to control prisoners during an incident at HMP Lewes in East Sussex.

A spokesman from the Prison Governors Association said the disturbance at the Birmingham jail “comes at a very difficult time for Noms (National Offender Management Service) on the back of recent riots and at a time when the prison estate is already bursting at the seams”.

Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said the disturbances at the Birmingham jail were “hugely concerning” and claimed the Justice Secretary was “failing to get this crisis under control”.

Tory chairman of the Commons Justice Committee, Robert Neill, told Channel Four News the Government had been warned by his watchdog group of MPs that a “time bomb was ticking” as prisons were in “crisis”.

When it was suggested this could be the worst prison riot in years, Mr Neill said: “Certainly looking that way, yeah, and this is a problem which has happened both in privately and publicly-run systems, so it applies across the piece.

“I think that does indicate that we have got a situation where if people are locked down 22/23 hours a day, as we have discovered, that breeds tension, that breeds violence, and, as you rightly say, we are not actually keeping prisons secure enough to stop contraband getting in.”

Labour’s shadow home secretary Diane Abbott told Channel Four News “private companies should not be involved in taking away people’s liberty. Actually, it’s clear that G4S don’t have the quality of staff to manage a crisis like this”.

Mark Leech, editor of Converse, the national newspaper for prisoners, urged people to sign the online petition for a public inquiry into the prison system.

Mr Leech said Mr Leech said: “We need a public inquiry into our prison system – something we have never had – so our prison system can be clear what is expected of it.

“At the moment we have a secretary of state who has sought to bring in a clear vision of reform, but the evidence shows that these policy decisions are fragile – we are now on our third Justice Secretary in just 18 months, each with very different approaches, and we simply cannot go on stumbling from one policy change to another.

“We need absolute clarity about exactly what it is that we expect our prison system to deliver, in terms of how it reduces crime, punishes offenders, keeps staff and prisoners safe and how it addresses the concern of victims.

“Once we have that clear vision, based on an examination of evidence, from around the world if necessary as to what works best, we then need to know exactly what that is going to cost in real terms and ensure that the prison system has those resources to pay for its delivery.

“At the moment the prison system is told it has a mission of prison reform, but we have no idea what that ‘reform’ really means, what it will cost in real terms or how its delivery is to be paid for – that’s a recipe for disaster.

“And there is nothing to say that this time next year we will not have another Justice Secretary, with completely different views to the current one, who orders another 180-degree turn in policy yet again and leaves the prison system reeling and even more confused than ever about what it is expected to do.

” Only a Public Inquiry will deliver that clarity and I urge everyone with an interest in our prisons to sign the petition.”

Mr Leech said: “You cannot run a prison system on tuppence ha’penny while expecting it to deliver reforms that cost billions – where is that money going to come from?”

The introduction of legal highs, inside our prisons has been a game-changer. Assaults on prisoners and staff are at record levels, staff assaults are running at the rate of 65 a day, every day, with suicides, murders, self-harm, escapes and riots – where will it end?

Please, sign the petition.