G4S and government fail Birmingham prisoners

Birmingham prison is being brought back under government adminstration

In a stroke of bitter irony the fences of HMP Birmingham are littered with signs proclaiming ‘Protected by G4S’. Nothing could be further from the truth. In 2011 HMP Birmingham, more locally known as Winson Green prison, was the first public sector prison to be transferred into private hands; yet on 20 August 2018 the Justice Secretary announced the prison was being taken back into government administration in an attempt to control the shambolic mess G4S has made of it.

The Prisons Inspectorate, which had previously been very critical of Birmingham prison (see  FRFI 264) carried out an unannounced inspection between 30 July and 9 August. The outcome of this inspection was the serving of an Urgent Notification on the Secretary of State for Justice on 16 August, setting out a list of failings which required immediate attention. Media coverage of the ensuing government intervention read as though heroic action had been taken by sacking the governor and stripping G4S of its lucrative contract. This is wishful thinking: although it is true the government has taken control of the prison for now, this is on a temporary six-month basis and G4S still retains the contract. G4S’s prison director Robert Kellett has been temporarily replaced by public sector prison governor Paul Newton.

Conditions at Winson Green were rated poor by the inspectorate in every key area, and testimonies to this both in the inspectors’ reports and in local newspaper accounts from former prisoners and prisoners’ relatives, make for dire reading. Accounts of squalid and filthy living conditions, as well as wide-scale medical neglect of addicted prisoners, go hand in hand with stories of rampant violence, death threats texted out to the partners of indebted prisoners, and vehicles being set on fire in the prison car park.

Of the 70 recommendations made at the previous inspection in February 2017, only 14 had been fulfilled. None of the four main recommendations – concerning violence, staff-prisoner relationships, poor regimes and a lack of focus on education, training and work – had been met. The Urgent Notification letter doesn’t mince its words, stating: ‘The first priority of any prison should be to keep those who are held or work there safe. In this regard, HMP Birmingham had completely failed. Levels of violence had increased and, when measured over the last 12 months, were the highest for any local prison in the country.’ 

It goes on to graphically describe how:  ‘We found prisoners isolating themselves in their cells, refusing to emerge because of their fear of violence. The prison did not know how many men were in this position and virtually nothing was being done to support them. All of those we found were locked up for over 23, sometimes 24 hours a day, occasionally being unlocked to have a shower. Some told us they felt unsafe even behind the locked cell door, and described ongoing intimidation including other prisoners squirting urine or throwing faeces through their broken observation panels.’

This unrelenting violence plays itself out against a background of squalor, dilapidation and neglect: ‘Communal areas in most wings were filthy. Rubbish had accumulated and not been removed. There were widespread problems with insects, including cockroaches, as well as rats and other vermin. We saw evidence of bodily fluids left unattended, including blood and vomit. I saw a shower area where there was bloodstained clothing and a pool of blood that had apparently been there for two days, next to numerous rat droppings. Many cells were cramped, poorly equipped and had damaged flooring or plasterwork. Most toilets were poorly screened, many were leaking and we saw cells with exposed electrics. In the older part of the prison (primarily A, B, C wings), virtually every window was damaged and many were missing.’

To add insult to injury, there were significant delays by prison staff responding to prisoners pressing their cell bells, with prisoners waiting up to an hour for someone to come. As was tragically shown by a recent death at Wandsworth prison, such delays can be lethal.

Following the issuing of the Urgent Notification, Secretary of State David Gauke issued an Initial Response Action Plan on 10 September and a more detailed response on 17 September. Key points include bringing in further experienced prison staff, reducing the population of the prison by 300 by the end of September and keeping it at that level, refurbishing cells and improving work, training and release support for prisoners.

In his 17 September response, David Gauke rejected the Chief Inspector’s suggestion of an independent assessment of the circumstances which have led to the government stepping in to take over the running of the prison, stating: ‘I strongly believe that we already know what happened at HMP Birmingham’ and that ‘Unfortunately the story at HMP Birmingham is a relatively familiar one to us all.’

Indeed it is. As we have repeatedly reported in FRFI, the familiar story of prisoners being warehoused in disgusting and degrading conditions, where violence, intimidation and bullying are rife, is replicated across the system. Urgent Notifications and Action Plans may have a very limited effect on individual establishments for a short while but do not even begin to address the fundamental issues of Britain’s overcrowded and punitive prison system.

Martyn Franek

Rory Stewart announces resignation plans

Pre-empting the almost inevitable reshuffle that will see him shunted out of his job at some point within the next year, on 17 August prisons minister Rory Stewart announced his intention to resign from the post if during that time-frame he has failed to reduce the incidence of drugs and violence in ten British prisons. The ten prisons are Hull, Humber, Leeds, Lindholme, Moorland, Wealstun, Nottingham Ranby, Wormwood Scrubs and Isis. Stewart doesn’t appear to have any innovative plans for turning them around, but has announced a programme of increased security, mainly based around increased use of body scanners and sniffer dogs, together with sending prison governors to train at a military college.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 266 October/November 2018


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