The prison was given a full inspection in February 2017. In his report the inspector said:
“HMP Birmingham is a category B local prison housing adult male prisoners which is operated by G4S Custodial Services. G4S assumed control of the prison in 2011. It holds a complex mix of prisoners and is characterised by a very high throughput, with around 500 new prisoners each month and an average stay of only six weeks. It is situated near to the centre of Birmingham and is a mixture of older Victorian buildings supplemented by accommodation for a further 450 prisoners, built just over 10 years ago, together with new workshops and facilities for education, health care and gym.
In December 2016 a major disturbance took place at the prison. Severe damage was caused to much of the more modern accommodation. Four wings were undergoing repairs at the time of this inspection and were not expected to be returned to use for some months. Following the disturbance, around 500 prisoners were moved out of the jail, leaving a population of over 900 to be housed in the older Victorian accommodation.
It should be clearly understood that the purpose of carrying out this inspection a mere two months after such a serious disturbance was not in any way to enquire into events leading up to it, look for causal factors, comment on the handling of the disturbance or make recommendations in respect of it. A totally separate enquiry process had been established to perform those functions. Nor was it the purpose of this inspection to look forward to the time when the prison would be repopulated and speculate as to what might be required to make that process a success.
The decision to inspect at the time we did was based upon two principal factors. First, after such a serious outbreak of violence and destruction at one of the country’s largest and most prominent prisons, there was a clear duty on HM Inspectorate of Prisons to establish the extent to which the prison, still housing some 900 prisoners, was doing so in a safe, secure, respectful and decent way. There was also a requirement to see whether the essential functions of providing rehabilitative purposeful activity and a resettlement function for the remaining prisoners were being effectively delivered. Second, the inspection was intended to offer an independent snapshot of how the prison was performing in February 2017, and thereby give the prison’s leadership a baseline from which they could plan the continuing recovery from the events of December 2016 and set clear targets for the future.
We cannot comment on whether the outbreak of rioting in December 2016 had been foreseen, or whether it was reflective of staffing levels or the state of relationships between staff and prisoners. What we can say is that during the period of the inspection – when staffing levels appeared adequate – we saw many positive interactions between staff and prisoners and, in general, relationships were respectful. This is reflected in our assessment of ‘reasonably good’ in the area of respect. However, we also saw too much inconsistency in the way in which poor behaviour was dealt with by staff. Prisoners need to know where the boundaries of acceptable behaviour lie, and it is unsettling and frustrating for them if those boundaries vary in an unpredictable way.
This report sets out in some detail a number of positive things that we saw at HMP Birmingham, and in particular it is noteworthy that health care was generally good, and the community rehabilitation company was working far better than we usually see. The level of consultation with prisoners was good at all levels and the prisoner council was well established. It was also impressive that there was in-cell telephony for prisoners throughout the Victorian residential wings, which was a significant achievement.
However, there were two key areas that needed to be addressed. First, the safety and stability of the prison was clearly being adversely affected by the high volume of illicit drugs, particularly new psychoactive substances (NPS),which were available. Fifty per cent of prisoners told us it was easy to get drugs, and one in seven was acquiring a drug habit while in the jail. As in so many prisons, drugs were giving rise to high levels of violence, debt and bullying. The prison had a drug supply reduction strategy, and there was good partnership work with West Midlands Police, but more needed to be done. In particular, and in common with other establishments, there needed to be an assessment as to whether the technology being used to counter the threats posed by drones, mobile phones and prisoners concealing drugs internally was both the best available and being effectively used.
The second major area of concern was that the provision of education and training in the prison was poor. That is not to say that the range of what was on offer was poor – we found a good range of provision that met the needs of the short-term population. However, the simple fact was that not enough prisoners were able to take advantage of what was on offer. Attendance was poor, at between 40% and 60% in many sessions. Given that there were sufficient activity places for the current population, this showed not only that there was a huge waste of available resources but also that there was insufficient priority given to getting prisoners to their activities. Unsurprisingly, the assessment made by this inspection in the area of purposeful activity was ‘poor’.
The leadership of the prison was clearly committed to meeting the many challenges presented by this large and complex establishment. The events of December 2016 had had a profound effect upon many members of staff. There was still, some two months later, a palpable sense of shock at the suddenness and ferocity of what had happened. Despite this, there was a very clear determination on the part of the leadership and staff to move on from the disorder, rebuild and make progress. During a meeting with senior staff I was told, most emphatically, that they did not want ‘to be defined by what happened on 16 December’.
I am well aware that this report is likely to receive very close attention from many people and organisations who would like to understand the reasons for the riot. As I have explained above, that is not the purpose of this report, and to attempt to use it in that way would be a mistake. It would also be totally wrong for anyone to try to use the findings of this report to make comment, from a political, ideological or any other perspective, on the comparative performance or legitimacy of private and public sector prisons. That issue is completely irrelevant to HM Inspectorate of Prisons. This report is no more, and no less, than an account of the treatment of prisoners and the conditions in which we saw them being held during the period of the inspection.
Peter Clarke CVO OBE QPM
HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
To see the full reports on the Ministry of Justice web site follow the links below, this section contains the reports for Birmingham from 2000 until present
- HMP Birmingham, Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Birmingham (6-17 February 2017)
- Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Birmingham (9-13 January 2012) (PDF 0.47mb)
- Report on an unannounced full follow-up inspection of HMP Birmingham (2-11 December 2009) (PDF 0.59mb)
- Report on an announced inspection of HMP Birmingham (19-23 February 2007) (PDF 0.69mb)
- Report on an unannounced follow-up inspection of HMP Birmingham (11-13 May 2004) (PDF 0.39mb)
- Report on a full unannounced inspection of HMP Birmingham (21-25 October 2002) (PDF 0.63mb)
- Report on a full announced inspection of HMP Birmingham (10-18 July 2000) (PDF 0.34mb)