LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A British government takeover of a prison in Birmingham from a private firm shows that the facility “is not fit for purpose,” according to Bishop Richard Moth, lead bishop on prisons for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
An unannounced government inspection of HM Prison Birmingham, which is run by private firm G4S, was conducted between July 30 and Aug. 9, revealing the prison was in “an appalling state.”
First built in 1849, the prison has long been criticized for poor conditions. In 2011, it became the first public prison to be turned over to private management when G4S – the world’s largest security company – took over.
In December 2016, a prison riot put the prison under the microscope, and the latest inspection has found conditions have not improved.
In an Aug. 16 letter from Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, to the Justice Minister, the situation was said to have had a “dramatic deterioration.”
“I was not surprised to find that of the 70 recommendations we made at our last inspection [in Feb. 2017], only 14 had been achieved. 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,” Clarke wrote.
Among the problems, he said violent prisoners were allowed to act “with impunity” and other prisoners were terrified of leaving their cells; rampant drug use, with many prisoners found under the influence of drugs and the smell of cannabis and other substances pervading many parts of the prison; lack of prevention of self-harm, including the suicide of at least three prisoners; accounting for prisoners was poor, with wing staff often not knowing where their prisoners were at any given time; and many of the staff “lacked both confidence and competence in key prison skills,” compounded by the fact many of the management team were “ineffective.”
There were 1,434 assaults reported at the prison from July 2017 – July 2018, the highest number in the country.
“Birmingham is a very large prison and comprises older Victorian wings and newer accommodations built in the last 15 years. We found living conditions as poor as we have seen anywhere in recent years and staff and managers appeared to have become inured to the decay in standards,” Clarke wrote.
In his Aug. 21 statement, Moth said “pressures on prison resources and personnel” are some of the reasons for the deterioration at the prison.
“It must be hoped that the new arrangements for HM Prison Birmingham will bring about the changes necessary for both inmates and staff. There are a number of institutions across the prison estate where much still needs to be done to assure the safety and well-being of prison populations and surrounding communities,” the bishop said.
The Prisons Minister Rory Stewart said the conditions at the Birmingham prison are “unacceptable” and that “drastic action” is needed.
The contract with G4S has not been cancelled, and the government takeover is only supposed to last six months. Officials said there is no plan to end privately-run prisons.
“We have good, privately-run prisons across the country and while Birmingham faces its own particular set of challenges, I am absolutely clear that it must start to live up to the standards seen elsewhere,” Stewart said.
On Friday, Stewart announced a new project to tackle the most persistent and urgent problems facing ten of the “most challenging” prisons in the country.
The project will focus on stopping violent and disruptive behavior, fighting drug use, improving security, and offering new training to boost leadership capabilities.
“No one can hope to change an entire system overnight. But through these vital improvements to 10 prisons, we can set a course for the rest of the estate to follow – leading us to a system that truly rehabilitates, cuts reoffending and ultimately keeps the public safer,” Stewart said.
HM Prison Birmingham is not one of the ten prisons involved in the project.