Today’s reports of the catastrophic failings at HMP Birmingham, and the Government’s decision to step in and take over management of the prison from G4S, are certainly shocking. However, to anyone with a passing interest in the current state of prisons across the country, they are in no way surprising.
Ever since the Tories began their absurd experiment with starving prisons of cash in 2010, they have been repeatedly warned that such drastic cuts would have drastic consequences. At every turn, they have set their face against the evidence, ignored the pleas from campaigners and prisoners alike, and refused to acknowledge the terrible story that their own statistics told.
Damningly, successive justice secretaries have ploughed on with these cuts, without even bothering with the fig leaf of “reform” that their departmental colleagues have clutched to try and cover the spending cuts dogma in health, education and policing. They trimmed what little fat there was, then chose to carry on cutting, well after they had hit the bone. And it is this myopic adherence to dogmatic spending reductions that have led us to this inevitable end point.
Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, on which I sit, has already highlighted the systematic failings by the MOJ in it’s contract design, management and cost control functions. Whether on electronic monitoring tags, or community rehabilitation companies, time and again the department fails either to design services adequately or manage contracts effectively leading to the all too familiar cycle of bailouts for private companies, the taxpayer picking up a bigger tab and a service that doesn’t simply deteriorate but which becomes more dangerous for everyone.
Here in Birmingham, it is clear that the prison has never recovered from the riots that made headlines in 2016. Even before that, the data showed how bad things were, with assaults soaring from just over 200 in 2012 to almost 1,150 in 2017. That the prison was allowed to deteriorate further still, culminating in the dangerous squalor uncovered by the Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke, beggars belief – but somehow, it did. Ministers either knew and ignored the situation, or failed in their most basic of duties. They are either guilty of collusion or dereliction of duty – and either way are culpable for the position we find ourself in.
And it is worth repeating just what Peter Clarke encountered in HMP Birmingham. Mr Clarke described it as the worst prison he had ever been to, operating in a “state of crisis”. His team found vermin faeces, vomit and blood on the floor and walls and cockroaches in cells. And above this “squalor” and “filth”, the “air was hanging heavy with the smell of drugs”. Indeed, the fog of drugs was so bad, Mr Clarke was forced to leave a wing due to the affects it was having on him.
This is not a problem that has developed overnight. This is a problem created by Government, then allowed to fester when they refused to acknowledge it and change tack. And seemingly unstoppable rise of the scourge of drugs and new psychoactive substances in our prisons, delivered with apparent impunity by drones and other routes, will only grow worse until staff there are ample staff and funding to tackle it. Meanwhile, low-level offenders entering the prison system now leave addicted to substances that make them a menace to themselves – and the communities they return to. Whichever side of the rehabilitation versus punishment debate you find yourself on, we can all surely agree that our prisons should not make addicts of their population. That it does is a national disgrace.
The emergency measures announced for HMP Birmingham today – more money, emergency staff drafted in, and a major reduction in the prison population there – will hopefully improve matters in the short term. But let’s not kid ourselves; even with these changes, staff numbers and funding will still be below their 2010 levels. And let us also remember that the horrors of life in side HMP Birmingham did not happen in isolation. It is not an aberration – it is an horrific encapsulation of prison life in 2018 under a Tory Government. They’ve ignored every warning up until now. We can only hope that this time, they won’t.
Shabana Mahmood is the Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood