In Depth

HMP Birmingham emergency takeover: what went wrong?

Government steps in after new report reveals shocking levels of violence and drugs in the jail

The Ministry of Justice has seized control of HMP Birmingham ahead of a damning inspection report that reveals high levels of violence in the jail, as well as squalid living conditions and the widespread use of drugs.

The prison, which was the scene of a major riot in December 2016, has been run by the private security giant G4S since 2011.

The state of the category B prison is likely to raise “significant questions” about private sector involvement in the prison system, says The Guardian.  

What did inspectors find?

The chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, says the report, which was published today, contains “some of the most disturbing evidence that inspectors [...] have seen in any prison”.

Inspectors found the highest levels of violence in any local prison in the country, with some inmates saying they felt unsafe even behind locked cell doors, ITV News reports.

Inmates assaulted staff and prisoners with impunity, and fearful staff locked themselves in offices, according to the report.

Drugs, including the synthetic cannabinoids Spice and Black Mamba, were consumed openly in front of prison inspectors. Inmates were largely unchallenged by staff.

The report also detailed squalid living conditions, including corridors that were covered with cockroaches, blood and vomit, and broken windows in almost every cell.

Steven Swinford, deputy political editor of The Daily Telegraph, tweeted that it was “one of the most excoriating reports I've ever read”.

“The government was warned back in May that prisoners had effectively taken over entire wings at HMP Birmingham – yet it has taken until today to take it back under public control,” he said.

What happens next?

The Ministry of Justice will take over the running of HMP Birmingham for an initial six-month period. This may be extended if ministers are not satisfied sufficient progress has been made.

Hundreds of inmates will be removed from the prison during the overhaul, and a new governor and management team will be put in place. An extra 30 officers will also be deployed to bolster staffing.

All of this will be at no additional cost to the taxpayer, the government says.

What has the response been?

“What we have seen at Birmingham is unacceptable and it has become clear that drastic action is required to bring about the improvements we require,” said Prisons Minister Rory Stewart.

Meanwhile, G4S said it welcomed the development as an opportunity to “urgently address” the problems at the prison.

MoJ sources are “keen to stress the government does not believe privatisation was at the root of the prison’s troubles”, pointing out that other G4S prisons have recently received good inspection reports, The Guardian says.

But the shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, says the takeover shows the “dangerous consequences of the ever greater privatisation of our justice system.”

He added: “This must be a nail in the coffin for the flawed idea of prison privatisation.”

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