Birmingham prison spotlight shone – nothing done

Police in riot gear outside Birmingham prison in 2016

On 3 May the trial of nine prisoners accused of involvement in the 2016 mass protest at Birmingham prison came to an end. The results were clearly not what the government, prosecution or G4S (the private company which manages the prison), had hoped for. Only one of the accused was convicted of the serious charge of prison mutiny; he and three others were also convicted of ‘taking a photo or making a sound recording without authority’ – an offence introduced in 2007 as part of a series of amendments to the Prison Act designed to deal with phones and other devices being used in prison. The remaining five were acquitted on all charges.

Earlier court hearings in 2017 were more successful for those lined up against the prisoners: two men were found guilty of prison mutiny and sentenced to serve nine years each. Four others who pleaded guilty were sentenced to six-year terms. Nicki Jameson reports.

Frustration and rage

The final months of 2016 saw prisons across England gripped by frustration and rage against a brutal and overcrowded system in which prisoners were becoming increasingly desperate, as the capitalist crisis and resultant public sector spending cuts made an impact on their already minimal rights.

During this period there were protests and disturbances at Lewes, Bedford, Moorland and Swaleside prisons, and on 16 December 2016, the largest such protest erupted at HMP Birmingham, involving over 100 prisoners. The Prison Officers Association (POA) described it as ‘the worst since Strangeways’.*

The POA had its own agenda in relation to the wave of protests in general, and that at the privatised Birmingham prison in particular. A month earlier, on 16 November 2016, the union, which is legally banned from striking, had staged an unofficial walk-out in protest against staff shortages and fear of violence against its members.

Although it is indeed true that spending cuts since 2007 have resulted in a reduction in prison officer numbers, the POA simply repeated the same refrain it has uttered since its inception. Its suggested solution to any ‘prison crisis’ is never that prisoners should have access to more education, rehabilitation etc to divert them from violence against staff or one another, but that they should be locked up for even longer each day and allowed even fewer opportunities to leave their cells.

As the prisoners from the 2016 revolt were beginning to face the courts at the start of September 2017, a second protest took place at Birmingham prison. Again fuelled by oppressive conditions in general, this upheaval, along with more at other prisons, was further driven by the impending ban on tobacco. As we wrote in FRFI 260 (October/November 2017):

‘Not content with presiding over an overcrowded, volatile prison system, the government is setting about making levels of stress, bullying and racketeering reach new heights by banning smoking. The majority of Category C prisons are now officially “smoke free” and the MOJ plans to have the ban in place in all closed prisons by summer 2018. “Smoke free” does not of course mean that no one is smoking or that there is no tobacco, any more than a “drug free” prison wing really means there are no drugs. But the possession of a highly addictive substance which is perfectly legal outside prison has now become an offence inside. So, while the black market tobacco price rockets and prisoners roll up nicotine patches issued by health care to smoke, levels of stress mount. According to press reports, prisoners at the recent Haverigg and Birmingham disturbances could be heard chanting “We want burn [tobacco]”.’

A brutal history

Winson Green prison, as it was originally called, was built in 1849 to house adult male and female prisoners, as well as children. Although the first governor, Captain Alexander Maconochie, was a liberal reformer, following his dismissal from the job, the prison became insanitary, violent and dangerous, with mistreatment of prisoners rife and deaths in custody all too frequent. It has remained that way ever since.

  • In 1974 the innocent Birmingham Six were viciously beaten by prison staff. They appeared in court covered in bruises and other injuries; 14 officers were charged with assault, but acquitted at trial.
  • In 1980 Barry Prosser was kicked to death by Winson Green screws. His inquest returned a verdict of ‘unlawful killing’ and three officers were charged with murder. None of them gave evidence and their defence claimed some of Barry’s injuries were self-inflicted. The three were acquitted and the Home Office refused to allow a public inquiry.
  • In 1992 John Bowden received £3,000 compensation for a beating he received in 1989 on arrival from Long Lartin, where he had been organising prisoners to stand up for their rights.
  • In 1995 former Strangeways protester Paul Taylor was battered by segregation unit staff following his transfer from Blakenhurst prison.

This targeted violence by prison staff was played out against a backdrop of overcrowding, squalor, neglect and racism. In 2001 the Chief Inspector of Prisons reported that the prison contained ‘some of the worst conditions we have ever seen in a prison in England and Wales’:

  • Sick and mentally ill prisoners were subject to degrading treatment and kept in disgusting physical conditions
  • There was a shortage of clean clothes for prisoners, some of whom did not even get a weekly shower, and toilet paper was rationed.
  • 62% of prisoners felt unsafe and 11% reported being assaulted by staff.
  • Racist staff attitudes were prevalent and not hidden, with the principal officer’s office adorned with a racist cartoon, including the words ‘Join the National Front’.

Privatising the problem

In 2009, the then Labour government put Birmingham prison out to tender, inviting private contractors to bid to run it. Although, after the uprising in 1990, there had been a Tory government plan to privatise Strangeways, this did not ultimately go ahead. Winson Green therefore became the first state prison to be privatised, although Labour in government oversaw the opening of 11 new prisons in England and Wales, and two in Scotland, entirely constructed and run by private companies.

By 2011 when the tendering process was complete, Labour had been replaced in government by the ConDem Coalition; Conservative Home Secretary Ken Clarke therefore had the job of awarding the contract to take over Birmingham and build an additional prison, then referred to as ‘Featherstone 2’ and which would become HMP Oakwood. The capacity of Birmingham had been increased in 2004 from 900 to 1,400 prisoners, and together the two prisons can house 3,550.

The 13 then existing private prisons were run by three companies: Kalyx, Serco and G4S Justice Services, and it was G4S which won the Birmingham/Oakwood contract. G4S is the world’s largest security company, operates in over 90 countries and is the world’s third-largest private employer. It was founded in 2004 by the merger of British-based Securicor plc and Denmark-based Group 4 Falck. Currently, G4S runs five of the 14 privately-run prisons in England and Wales, as well as two of the eight immigration detention centres. It also manages housing for asylum seekers (see page 10), and provides tagging, escort and a wide range of other ‘services’ to the government. The Birmingham/Oakwood contract runs for 15 years and was estimated by G4S, when it announced having won it, to be worth £750m.

G4S’s crimes are many. Just a few of the more well-known in this country are:

  • 2010: the death of Jimmy Mubenga while pinned down by G4S guards on a flight deporting him to Angola. As with Barry Prosser, the inquest verdict was ‘unlawful killing’ but the guards were acquitted, in this case of manslaughter.
  • 2012: chaotic organisation of security arrangements for the London Olympics.
  • 2014: charging the government for the post-custody electronic tagging of prisoners who were back in prison, had never been released or had died.
  • 2016: revelations of mistreatment and assaults against juveniles imprisoned in Medway Secure Training Centre.
  • 2017: physical and mental abuse of immigration detainees at Brook House revealed by undercover Panorama programme. Despite this, G4S continues to hold the contract to run Brook House.

Still dangerous and deadly

In 2017 the Prisons Inspector visited Birmingham prison again, and reported that: ‘More than half of prisoners in our survey said they had felt unsafe during their time at the prison and over a third felt unsafe at the time of the inspection... Violence towards staff and between prisoners was very high. There had been an increase, year on year since the previous inspection.’ Drugs were easy to come by and one in seven prisoners interviewed had acquired a drug habit since being imprisoned.

On 27 April 2018 The Guardian reported that five prisoners had died at HMP Birmingham in the previous seven weeks, one from ‘natural causes’ and the others either by overdosing accidentally on drugs or intentionally taking their own lives. The prison has apparently been served with two ‘improvement orders’ by the MOJ addressing levels of violence, hygiene standards, prisoner care and treatment, and reducing incidents of self-harm.

No end in sight

And so it goes on. Whether in public or private hands, Winson Green/Birmingham prison continues to be a hate factory, warehousing working class men with chaotic lives and rendering them back into society more damaged than when they went in. Of course it is not unique; the whole prison system is brutal and degrading. Yet even the usual reform mantras of ‘improving conditions’, ‘reducing overcrowding’, ‘increasing rehabilitation’ are nowhere on the government’s current political agenda; nor on that of the opposition, with the Labour manifesto merely promising to recruit an additional 3,000 prison officers.

Like the Strangeways prisoners before them, in a small way those who protested inside Birmingham prison in 2016 and 2017 succeeded in shining a spotlight onto the brutality inside the prison walls, and like the Strangeways prisoners it was they, and not the prison guards, managers or – in the case of a privatised prison – fat cat executives, who the state then sought to punish for shining that light.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 264 June/July 2018

* The protest that began at HMP Strangeways in Manchester on 1 April 1990 became the biggest revolt to shake the British prison system. You can read about it in detail in Larkin Publications’ unique book Strangeways 1990: a serious disturbance, available via our website or by post from our office, price £7.95.



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