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How did Birmingham Prison get so bad?

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Last November, the prison inspectorate agreed an urgent notification protocol with the government. When a prison is found to be in dire straits, the inspectorate can issue a letter to the secretary of state demanding action. The minister has 28 days to respond outlining an improvement plan. Both the notification and the response are automatically put in the public domain. The protocol has been invoked three times, most recently for HMP Birmingham, run by the private contractor G4S.

Birmingham failed all four tests of a healthy prison: safety, respect, purposeful activity, and rehabilitation and release planning. Peter Clarke, the chief inspector, described ‘high levels of violence … widespread problems with insects, including cockroaches … and a pool of blood that had apparently been there for two days’. His letter to the justice secretary paints a squalid and brutal picture, and doesn’t mask his disbelief that any prison could be in such a state.

The prison has been taken back into public control for a minimum of six months. A new governor has been appointed; there are more staff and fewer prisoners: 1150 instead of 1450. Other prisons are in trouble too. A few days before Birmingham hit the headlines, the prisons minister, Rory Stewart, announced that the ten most struggling prisons are to receive intensive support and fresh resources. Stewart said he’ll resign in 12 months if violence across the estate hasn’t come down by a quarter.

There was a small but surprising reduction in the prison population over the summer. But both the Justice Committee and the Ministry of Justice project that more people will be incarcerated by 2022; more prisons are planned. If you build prisons, you tend to fill them; Britain looks set to continue to have the highest per capita prison population in Western Europe.

How did Birmingham get so bad? The reasons include privatisation, low staffing levels, new drugs, and government spending cuts. Privatisation alone isn’t straightforwardly to blame. Some private prisons are better run than their public counterparts, and there are prisons in public hands that would recognise themselves in Birmingham’s inspection. But privatisation has contributed to problems across the prison system, as the public sector has to be run for as little as possible to stay ‘competitive’. That’s the big picture; the inspectorate is more concerned with the detail.

Clarke’s letter to the minister pays close attention to staff behaviour. After describing a sadistic and humiliating scene, he says: ‘We struggle to understand how staff could have allowed this appalling bullying to take place.’ He couldn’t see many officers, but found some sleeping when the prison was on patrol state (when all prisoners are locked up). Leadership was ineffective, broken windows hadn’t been fixed, and management seemed to be in the grip of inertia. Interviewed on the Today programme he said someone must have been ‘asleep at the wheel’. The question that goes unasked is why the workforce is in such a soporific state.

There was a serious riot at the prison in 2016. Riots aren’t easily forgotten. During the recent inspection, 71 per cent of prisoners said they had felt unsafe in Birmingham, and the rates of violence are the highest of any local prison. The most vulnerable had resorted to a strategy of ‘self-isolating’ – i.e. not leaving their cells. There’s a parallel with staff behaviour: locking themselves in their offices, falling asleep on duty, not intervening. The inertia is charged with fear.

As the debate about prisons rumbles on, and the government talks tough about cracking down on drugs, corruption and violence, it’s worth repeating the point that for as long as we keep locking up more than 1000 men at a time in one place, the descent into inhumanity will remain a question of when, not if.


  1. S.J says:

    Shouldn’t the headline be ‘How Did Birmingham Prison Become So Bad?’ ?

  2. Agate says:

    They may be assigning new staff to prisons but the rate at which existing staff are leaving may well cancel this out. I know someone who works in a prison where there have sometimes been as many as twenty resignations in a month. Remaining staff, often newly qualified and inexperienced, are left struggling to cope.

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