An Inspector Calls
by Bill Hartley
An inspection report into HM Prison Birmingham was released on August 16th. What the inspectors found made the front pages of several newspapers. It illustrates the short corporate memory of Prison Service Headquarters and a knack for getting into trouble that could have been avoided. They can’t say they weren’t warned either. The 2016 riot at the prison ought to have been an indicator of something being seriously wrong but afterwards attention seems to have wandered. A riot tends to leave a legacy of staff feeling demoralised and fearful. To put this right, strong and visible leadership is called for.
Whilst the privatisation or ‘market testing’ of prisons ended some time ago the legacy is still embedded in the system. Originally it tended to be obscure ‘training’ prisons or new builds that were that were contracted out to private security companies. The big Victorian local prisons which mostly lie in our larger cities were left alone. These jails carry out the core work of the Prison Service: holding remand prisoners, getting them to court and, post sentence, allocated on to a training prison. They are complex institutions which also have to live with significant overcrowding. Some years ago there was an attempt driven by political pressure to market test HMP Brixton but no-one took it seriously. To quote a senior manager from a private security company: ‘we wouldn’t have taken Brixton if had it come gift wrapped with a bottle of champagne’. It may have been more political pressure or perhaps the desire to show some corporate virility at headquarters, either way they were foolish enough to try again; this time offering up Birmingham with the sweetener of a dual contract to run HMP Oakwood, a brand new jail. Everyone but headquarters seemed to notice the obvious; that economy of scale would be achieved by moving experienced Birmingham officers out to the new jail and replacing them with cheaper locally recruited custodial staff. Prior to this Birmingham was a reasonably well run local prison which didn’t get itself into the newspapers very often.
The large local prisons have had their problems down the years with the infamous Strangeways riot being the most notorious incident. However, those who know these places well will attest to the effective job that is done on a daily basis in the midst of overcrowding and often primitive working conditions. It takes decades of jailcraft and tradition to create a body of staff that look out for each other and take pride in what they do. These are the people who maintain good relationships with prisoners, come down hard on the troublemakers, gather intelligence and ensure the place is kept clean. All these things were found by the inspectors to be absent at Birmingham. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that that once officers lose interest in taking on the serious troublemakers, those prisoners who want a quiet life will stop cooperating. They will sense the shift in the balance of power and in any institution no-one wants to be allied to the side that losing. They know that staff won’t or can’t help them and as a consequence will tacitly support the stronger group in the jail.
Of course these developments take time to evolve and deterioration is gradual. The 2016 riot should have acted as a warning but of course the Prison Service had devolved this responsibility. The riot seems to have been treated as an isolated incident and the jail was allowed to drift on into decline. A private company is likely to have other priorities and for the contractor G4S these would have been ones which earned or cost them money, for example, how many ‘completions’ were achieved i.e. prisoners going through courses or programmes. This is how a contractor’s performance is judged and other none earning activities such as security may have been subordinated to this. No-one seems to have minded very much, at least until the inspectors came along and uncovered the mess.
Interestingly the intelligence was there, the jail’s Independent Monitoring Board (lay people charged with an oversight role) had written to the minister with warnings but nothing much seems to have happened. Further, there is on site a Prison Service employee put there to monitor contract compliance. It would seem that this person had a very narrow view of what mattered. If so then this is typical of the kind of ‘performance based’ individual that the Service has been developing for many years. That the place was filthy should have been a clue to the absence of effective control. Keeping a prison clean isn’t easy but at least there are lots of people to help out. Birmingham seems to have been incapable of even this most basic of tasks: recruiting, training and supervising cleaning parties. A clear sign to anyone possessed of jailcraft as it used to be called that something had gone wrong.
The response has been to oust the private sector director and replace him with a Prison Service governor. In effect, whilst public money is being given to G4S to run Birmingham, a governor from the Prison Service has been moved from his day job to clear up someone else’s mess, again at public expense. Additionally, to make life a bit easier, 300 prisoners are to be moved elsewhere. The effect being that other prisons will have to absorb some of the problem. Rather than admit defeat and rescind the contract the response is a compromise whereby G4S keep running the place but the Prison Service assumes responsibility for getting it back on track. Of course, rescinding the contract would have meant bringing the G4S staff into the public sector on more favourable terms and conditions.
In an hilarious bit of doublespeak, Jerry Petherick, the G4S managing director of custody, was quoted as saying ‘we welcome the six month step in and the opportunity to work with the Ministry of Justice to urgently address the issues facing the prison’. I bet they do.
BILL HARTLEY, a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service, writes from Yorkshire