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Chaos at Birmingham Prison revealed: "Every day was a party. But boredom leads to badness"

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Hardeep MatharuLondon, UK
Chaos at Birmingham Prison revealed: "Every day was a party. But boredom leads to badness"
A report into a riot at HMP Birmingham in 2016 exposes the scale of the problems facing the G4S-run prison – more than a year before the Government announced it would be stepping in to take over.

Staff at HMP Birmingham abdicated responsibility for the running of the prison to inmates who themselves felt they had been given “too much freedom”, a shocking report into a riot at the jail has revealed.

On December 16, 2016, a 14-hour riot erupted at HMP Birmingham, a local remand prison for category B and C inmates, which has been run by the private company G4S since 2011.

The disturbance – which cost G4S and the taxpayer more than £6 million – saw 500 prisoners unlocked after keys were snatched from staff and four wings of the prison destroyed. The incident was brought under control only once the Government’s own specialist team regained the prison from its rampaging occupants.

A report into the riot was commissioned shortly afterwards and was delivered to the Government in June 2017.

However, the Government refused to publish it citing security concerns. It was finally released under Freedom of Information on Monday – the same day the Ministry of Justice announced that the state would temporarily be taking over the running of the prison from G4S.

In an inspection carried out shortly after the riot, the Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke said the prison was still shocked by the disturbance, but that there was a “determination to improve”. This month, HMP Birmingham failed all four ‘healthy prison’ tests when he inspected it again – safety, respect, purposeful activity, and rehabilitation and release planning.

“The inertia that seems to have gripped both those monitoring the contract and those delivering it on the ground has led to one of Britain’s leading jails slipping into a state of crisis that is remarkable even by the low standards we have seen all too frequently in recent years,” Mr Clarke said.

It is clear from reading the report into the riot that many deeply entrenched problems of a serious nature were brewing at HMP Birmingham long before December 2016. Why, then, did it take the Government until this week to decide that it had to intervene?

What follows are some of the report’s most concerning findings.

Riot “could and should have been prevented”

The report found that “the disturbance could and should have been prevented” and should not have gone on any longer than 30 to 50 minutes, but it did because staff lacked confidence in their authority to do so.

“The staff had, over the preceding year, and especially the preceding few months, become worn down by the chronic staff shortages at HMP Birmingham, caused by a combination of high levels of sickness, attrition and disorganised deployment,” it says. “Over this time period, they had gradually relinquished authority to the prisoners who were in effect policing themselves for much of the time.”

The riot was not planned and only escalated because staff failed to act.

The report says that the incident was “probably fuelled by boredom due to the lack of meaningful activity at Birmingham and frustration, particularly at the limited access to healthcare services, and individual grievances against the prison.”

Investigators were told that inconsistent access to healthcare was a major source of frustration and the main driver of the disturbance, which began when two prisoners – neither of whom should have been unlocked from their cells at the time – climbed onto the netting of the landing of their wing.

The report states: “We were told: ‘the main issue was people weren’t getting their meds. There was lots of people with mental health problems and no healthcare. They shouldn’t have been there. And not getting their meds… People put in to see healthcare and waited over six weeks to see the doctor’.”

‘Prisoners exploited the naivety of new recruits’

The report found that staff shortages at the jail were “chronic” because of difficulties recruiting staff, attrition, sickness and poor organisation.

In the week before the riot, up to 38 staff were off sick each day.

In 2016, 69 new prison custody officers had joined, but only 33 were operational by the time of the riot. Significantly, 76 officers had left during the year. Of these 76, 46 were new staff members and 30 were more experienced. The report states that more experienced staff were leaving due to “fatigue from shortages and assaults”, and new staff because of a “negative culture” caused by feeling ignored and marginalised by older staff members.

“Prisoners described many situations where experienced prisoners exploited the opportunities created by the naivety of new recruits to get themselves unlocked for longer or access privileges to which they were not entitled,” the report says.

“They let us get away with anything”

One of the key findings of the report was that staff lacked the confidence and authority to maintain order at the prison, with many prisoners feeling that they could do whatever they wanted with no repercussions.

Emphasis was placed at the jail on “maintaining the regime”, a policy which saw as many men as possible being unlocked every day, most of them at the same time and regardless of their status under the Incentives and Earned privileges scheme or whether they had a job to go to. This was widely understood by staff as being a priority, but many “struggled with the rationale in the face of the significant shortages of staff and the wide-ranging impact these had”.

The report states: “A theme of prisoner complaints was the lack of access to purposeful activity despite the emphasis on time out of cell. Prison Council members told us of prisoners’ frustrations that access to some activity – for example library and gymnasium – could be cancelled on any day due to staff shortages and prisoners did not know from day to day what aspects of the regime they would receive. Though prisoners appreciated the amount of time they were unlocked, they were frustrated by the lack of structure… In the absence of structured activities, prisoners become more prone to violence through boredom and frustration.”

Prisoners told the investigators: “There was too much freedom – we like freedom, but there weren’t enough staff to deal with it. You weren’t made to do anything, no discipline, no structure. You were all open but you couldn’t find any staff… No law, no order. You knew there would be no repercussions. So, nothing to stop you. They didn’t do anything about the parcels [of drugs or other contraband thrown over the wall]. They let us get away with anything. Every day was a party. But boredom leads to badness.”

‘Prisoners were used to police each other’

Investigators were told by prisoners that staff “tolerated rule-breaking” and that there was a perception among inmates “that they relied on prisoners to run the units”.

The report cites research demonstrating that, while prisoners enjoy the freedom when staff authority is overly light, they would prefer that a prison feels safe and controlled.

“Prisoners believed that staff had withdrawn from their responsibility to keep prisoners safe because they did not feel safe themselves,” the report states.

The use by the prison of inmates who were appointed as violence reduction (VR) reps on the wings was also problematic.

“The VR system appeared to have become corrupted and had strayed from its original purpose. There is a difference between involving prisoners as consultants in solving the issue of violence, and using them to police each other… One of the VR reps told us he did not always use peaceful means to keep order. Another told us that he was regularly called from his cell in the evening to break up fights between other prisoners to prevent calling more staff and having to record the incident.”

Prisoners told the investigators: “The officers said they were just going to let us get on with it. They would turn up to work but they would not put their lives at risk. Some of the staff were really good but they couldn’t hack the pressure. Scary to think you could just ask and they would open a gate. Sometimes they tried to leave some men locked up but they would just ask to be let out and then they were.”

The report concluded that the prison’s “security function was not operating as well as it should have been” which could have eased, if not prevented, its problems in the months leading up to the riot.

“Prisons in which staff are proactive in dealing with security risks (and who are thereby seen to be in control but not in an unduly authoritative way) tend to be safer. Prisoners as well as staff take confidence from safety,” it states.

“Inmates had it under control and officers went along with it”

The prison’s stability – reported to HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) on a weekly basis – was recorded as “low” every week in 2016 leading up to the riot, as well as on the day itself.

At the time the disturbance began, HMP Birmingham was the most violent prison of its kind in the country.

Self-harm had dramatically increased and prisoners under threat from others “were routinely left locked in their cells during association for their own protection while they awaited moves to other locations or the designated unit for vulnerable prisoners”.

Between October 1 and December 31 2016, there were 88 incidents of violence against staff including spitting; punching; the throwing of faeces, urine or boiling liquid at or over staff; and two sexual assaults.

The report says: “We were told by managers, staff and prisoners that, over a period of nine to 12 months, the prison had become significantly more unstable than was being reported. For many, the prison felt unsafe. Prisoners attributed this to shortages of staff and the inability of prison custody officers to maintain order and control.”

Prisoners told the investigators: “There were a few [inmates] controlling the wing. Officers encourage it. The few ones running the wing would be opened up to make sure others pay their bills. The officers did not keep you safe. You are not safe. People get battered and they do nothing. Too laid back. Inmates had it under control and officers went along with it. No law, no order. Self-run.”

The report concluded that “exceptionally high levels of violence were considered to be normal” at HMP Birmingham, with concerns that “this culture of acceptance masked a worsening picture of violence which, combined with a lack of effective sanctions, meant prisoner behaviour was unregulated”.

‘Spice was “bird killer” for bored prisoners’

The report found that gang culture in Birmingham permeated the prison walls and exacerbated the problems around drugs, such as the new psychoactive substance (NPS) Spice, being thrown over the perimeter fence or delivered by drones.

“The problem of illicit drug use had become more marked at Birmingham than in comparator prisons in 2016,” it says. “Staff were keen to emphasise the negative impact of NPS at the establishment yet, despite this level of appreciation, we were not furnished evidence to demonstrate the action being taken to address it… Prisoners found either in possession or having taken psychoactive substances did not face consistent sanctions and that those applied were not significant.”

Investigators said that they were repeatedly told by prisoners that “brazen drug use was tolerated”, while staff said they felt “powerless to intervene due to shortages and the perception you would be exposed or isolated if you were the ‘one who challenged’”.

The report states: “We asked the Prison Council why prisoners resorted to psychoactive substances, not least because of the known health risks. The simple answer was that it was a ‘bird killer’ – in other words, days of imprisonment spent in oblivion, to counter the effects of boredom and inactivity, the market for such distraction was more marked at Birmingham where structured activity was lacking and regime was inconsistently delivered.”

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