Birmingham prison – still unstable, dirty and dangerous

HMP Birmingham

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 268 February/March 2019

On 11 December 2018 the House of Commons Justice Committee heard evidence about recent events at HMP Birmingham, with a view to ‘the broader lessons that might be drawn’ as the Prison Service plans ‘towards 2022 and beyond’. As we have previously reported in FRFI, on 20 August 2018 the government was forced to intervene in the running of Birmingham prison, which had been contracted out to private multinational service-provider G4S since 2011, and which had become dilapidated and dangerous to a degree that could not be ignored.

The main witnesses were Michael Spurr, head of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), Jerry Petherick, G4S managing director for UK custodial and detention services, and Paul Newton, the current governor, who was sent from the state sector to run the prison, although the plan was always to to hand it back to G4S as soon as possible.

The witnesses’ evidence was partially a whitewashing exercise, in which Spurr attempted to shift the blame for the state of the prison away from G4S and onto long term pre-existing prison conditions combined with ‘prisoners [who] came back emboldened following the riot, which created additional challenges for the staff’. However, not all the questions could be easily dismissed and Petherick was grilled over the complete failure of G4S to deal with the appalling conditions in the prison’s 19th century wings, where every single window was broken.

Labour MP Ellie Reeves asked the key questions: ‘Are G4S still being paid to run the prison?’ and ‘Are G4S profiting from the contract?’ To the first, Spurr replied: ‘They are being paid for the staffing and all the work for the contract. It is still a G4S contract that we have stepped into. The additional cost that we are incurring as a result of the step-in… will be met by G4S as well.’ To the second question Petherick replied: ‘I make it very clear that we do not profit from Birmingham. We have not made a profit. Some of the reasons for that are, as I said earlier, that the maintenance has cost us much more money than we anticipated. It is our job actually to deliver, and we deal with the commercial aspects thereafter. We are not profiting from Birmingham.’

Reeves did not pursue this line of questioning any further. Whether or not G4S is actually turning a current profit from the beleaguered HMP Birmingham, it has not been stripped of the 15-year £450m contract to run the prison alongside HMP Oakwood, and retains the contracts to run Rye Hill, Altcourse and Parc prisons, as well as Tinsley House and Brook House immigration removal centres.

Some of the session was taken up with the reiteration of previous reports, alongside questions from representatives of the various political parties on the Committee: Labour, Conservative and SNP. The Committee has no actual power, and the airing of the evidence meant that the hearing was ultimately less to do with accountability and more a formality in which everyone’s voice would be heard, barring those who needed to be heard the most – the prisoners.

The Committee also heard from Prisons Minister Rory Stewart, who was asked about the plan to hand Birmingham prison back to G4S on 20 January 2019, and who replied: ‘Not if that prison is not a stable, clean, safe and decent prison. We will not be handing that prison back unless we are absolutely confident that it is now fully under control and G4S is able to run a safe, decent and clean prison in the future.’

As we go to press, Birmingham prison has not been given back to G4S so we must conclude that it is still unstable, dirty and dangerous. Whether in private or public hands this has been the state of Birmingham prison for most of its history. It should never be given back to G4S and should be shut down now.

Martyn Franek

 

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