The government knew about horrific conditions at Birmingham prison, but didn’t care | Charles Falconer

What little ministerial accountability there is appears to be focused on a handful of publicly run prisons. There is no plan

The chief inspector of prisons’ shocking report on HMP Birmingham shows that our prison estate is out of the control of authorities. The report found that inmates used drink, drugs and violence systematically. Prison gangs perpetrating violence could do so “with near impunity”. Staff experienced widespread bullying. While the inspectors were on site they witnessed an arson attack on a car in a staff car park.

In December 2016, HMP Birmingham experienced the worst prison riot since 1990, when prisoners had control of Strangeways prison in Manchester for 25 days, one prisoner was killed, and 147 prison officers and 47 prisoners were injured. The Birmingham incident should have led both G4S, the contractor that has been running the prison, and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), which has officials on site the whole time, to take special measures to ensure it was turned around. But it is now as bad as it has ever been and according to Peter Clarke, the chief inspector, the worst prison he has seen. This raises important issues about the effects of privatisation, but the loss of control spreads right across the prison estate, private or public. A Panorama programme about HMP Northumberland, which is run by Sodexo, another of the three private contractors running UK prisons, depicted another prison that is out of control. And in a report in January 2018, Clarke said HMP Liverpool, which is publicly run, had the worst conditions he had seen (now overtaken in that accolade by HMP Birmingham). The report showed violence against staff by inmates had tripled since the previous report in 2015.

There are three main causes: the courts sending many more violent prisoners to custody than previously; the pervasive effect of spice and other drugs in prison; and the deterioration of prisoner/prison officer ratios in private and public prisons alike.

Although the number of prisoners should be reduced, the government has an obligation to house those sent by the courts. But it has to address the other two factors with much greater vigour and immediacy.

First, to deal with the drugs it must spend proper money on a wholesale overhaul of prison security. Drug finds went up by 23% in the year to March 2018, compared with the previous year. A serious plan is required.

Second, staff ratios. The response of the government to the HMP Birmingham report is to reduce prison numbers, increase staff numbers, and change the leadership. All the correct moves. But dealing only with Birmingham isn’t enough. Before the riot in Birmingham in December 2016, 2,500 extra prison officers were promised, and were engaged across the estate before the deterioration during 2017 and 2018. And Birmingham got worse.

There is no plan. Three days ago, the prisons minister, Rory Stewart, announced £10m extra expenditure to improve security and conditions at 10 publicly run jails. It hardly begins to address the scale of the crisis. The evidence is overwhelming but the government is ignoring it and appears paralysed. HMP Birmingham is a terrible insight into what is happening: not just the horror of the conditions but also the inertia of the MoJ, which knew full well of the deterioration and did absolutely nothing until the publication of the report became imminent. The awful worry is it did nothing because although it knew the situation was bad, it considered it was not out of line with conditions in other prisons.

Talk of prison reform is pie in the sky until control is restored. But control will not be restored unless there is a properly funded plan to increase security and staff numbers. That HMP Birmingham was privately run has probably made the situation worse. In addition to the contractual sums paid to G4S, the state had the monitoring costs, and contracts are intended to give a return to the contractor of 5% to 8%, which would otherwise be available for direct expenditure on prisons.

HMP Birmingham.
‘Control will not be restored unless there is a properly funded plan to increase security and staff numbers.’ HMP Birmingham. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Stewart, when asked why the government had not acted sooner, cited commercial negotiations with G4S as one of the reasons for the delay in taking the emergency measures that have now been announced. The reluctance on the part of the government to act over a much longer period would in part have been because it was a private prison.

Ministerial accountability for the conditions in prisons appears to be focused on publicly run prisons. Yet, prison conditions whether public or private are the responsibility of the state. The government cannot duck its responsibility by outsourcing.

Surely the government must now finally act to address the prisons crisis. But it was fully aware of the collapse of control in Birmingham and yet did nothing. I am not hopeful.

• Charles Falconer is a former lord chancellor and justice secretary


Charles Falconer

The GuardianTramp

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