Experts are reacting to the government’s takeover of Birmingham prison and it’s not good

Sign saying "Welcome to HMP Birmingham"
Glen Black

The government has taken control of Birmingham prison. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said it will “stabilise [the] prison, inject fresh leadership and bolster existing staff”. But some prison experts disagree.

‘State of crisis’

The MoJ announced on 20 August that it is taking over management for HMP Birmingham. This move follows an Urgent Notification sent to secretary of state David Gauke that said the prison has seen a “dramatic deterioration” since February 2017.

Riots that broke out in December 2016 were widely described as the worst since the 1990 riots at Strangeways prison. But following the incident, G4S (the private firm handed control of HMP Birmingham in 2011) said it would:

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return the prison to a path of continuous development and innovation which has been nurtured so carefully over the past five and a half years.

The Urgent Notification reveals this hasn’t happened. HM Inspectorate of Prisons visited the site in early August and said it was in a “state of crisis”. And its letter says the regulator has:

no confidence in the ability of the prison to make improvements.

The MoJ will work with G4S for an initial period of six months to ensure “sufficient progress” is made improving the prison’s conditions. But this news hasn’t convinced everyone.

Privatisation

HMP Birmingham was the first prison in the UK to be handed over to a private company. And it’s the first the government has taken back under its wing. This has led many people to question privatising the prison system.

Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon stated this bluntly:

And he called for an inquiry into prison privatisation:

But Frances Crook, CEO of prison reform group The Howard League, disagrees:

Independence

Meanwhile, others have raised questions about the prison’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB). The role of this body is to provide independent monitoring for standards of “care and decency”.

Faith Spear was chair of the IMB at HMP Hollesley Bay, Suffolk. But she believes she was let go from this role for ’embarrassing’ the government by publicly questioning the independence of IMBs. And, she believes, this issue has arisen again after the news from HMP Birmingham:

Mark Leech, founder of post-prison support group Unlock, echoes these thoughts:

And Spear also says that handing the contract back to G4S amounts to putting “profit before people”:

In the end, many point out that this reflects a wider problem – not just in HMP Birmingham or even private prisons, but throughout the entire system:

Above all, one person points out that at the heart of the dramatic news are real people:

Systemic issues

However, HMP Birmingham is not the only prison facing problems. Reports on state-run HMP Liverpool and HMP Nottingham, as well as privatised HMP Pentonville, show bad conditions are everywhere. In February 2018, the Observer also revealed that two in five prisons are “unacceptably unsafe”.

Although the promise of “innovations” from prison privatisation appears to have come to nothing, renationalising the prison estate doesn’t seem to be a surefire way to fix issues either.

The problem lies in the prison system itself. And until we seriously focus on finding alternatives to incarceration, these problems will continue.

Get Involved!

– Follow @prisonstorm on Twitter for public debates on the prison system.

– Check out prison abolition groups such as Empty Cages Collective and Community Action on Prison Expansion.

Read more from The Canary on prisons.

Featured image via BhamUrbanNewsUK/YouTube

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