What causes a prison like HMP Birmingham to fail so dramatically that the government is forced to take back control from its private operator G4S? Monday’s urgent notification by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke which prompted the government’s dramatic move could not have been more damning of the failings of the prison’s management. It described an establishment beset by institutional inertia and characterised by high levels of violence, widespread bullying, squalid living conditions and poor control by fearful staff, who suffered an arson attack on their supposedly secure car park during the inspection.
Only four years ago, the prisons inspectorate described HMP Birmingham as “calm and ordered”, where “most prisoners generally felt safe and the number of violent incidents was not high”. The inspectorate’s 2017 report found the prison to have deteriorated significantly following disturbances in 2016, but that the management had the determination to improve.
Calling for an urgent inquiry into the causes of the prison’s rapid decline, Peter Clarke said it was a “reasonable conclusion” that the Ministry of Justice had failed in its oversight of HMP Birmingham and that there had been an “abject failure” of contract management. “How is it that in 18 months a prison which is supposedly being run under the auspices of a tightly managed contract, how has that been allowed to deteriorate?” he said on the BBC’s Today programme. On the same programme, the prisons minister Rory Stewart admitted that “this is partly the responsibility of me, as prisons minister, of the government, and of G4S, which is why we have taken this unprecedented step of stepping in, taking control of the prison.”
No doubt there are lessons to be learnt from how the contract between the government and G4S was managed, which a thorough inquiry would reveal. But to place the blame solely at the door of the private sector, as some have sought to do, vastly oversimplifies the problem. When it comes to prison performance, there is no neat dividing line that can be easily drawn between public and private establishments. Currently there are 14 private prisons contractually managed by private companies in England and Wales, housing some 19% of the total prison population. Just as is the case in the public sector, they include high performing establishments such as Parc and Altcourse (both managed by G4S) as well as some poorly performing prisons.
The question of whether anyone was “asleep at the wheel” in the Ministry of Justice also feels like a second order issue. Improvement notices had been issued at Birmingham, and of recent very poor inspection reports, probably only Exeter really took the prison service hierarchy by surprise. It’s not that there is any shortage of oversight – governors would probably say they have never spent more of their time providing “assurance” reports of one kind or another – the issue is the lack of resource to solve the many problems governors already know they are facing.
It is more important to note that, of the three urgent notifications that have been issued by the inspectorate this year, all have been for local category B establishments – HMP Nottingham in January; HMP Exeter in May; and HMP Birmingham in August. Local prisons are those which service the courts and are typically the most overcrowded in the estate. Most prisoners in local prisons are held for a short period of time either on remand, awaiting sentence, sentenced prisoners serving short prison sentences, longer sentenced prisoners awaiting transfer to a dispersal prison, or those recalled back to prison for breach of their licence conditions. This ‘revolving door’ population is particularly vulnerable with high levels of mental ill-health, learning disabilities, and drug and alcohol addictions. This vulnerability is exacerbated in the first few days in custody, where the risk of self-harm and self-inflicted death is especially high.
It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that it is these local prisons which have suffered particularly badly from the effects of steep cuts to staffing and resources since 2010. Most prisons have experienced a significant decline in standards of safety and decency in recent years, but the trend in local prisons has been especially marked. Of the 15 prisons rated as of “serious concern” in the prison service’s annual performance ratings, 11 are local prisons. Only three of the 14 local prisons inspected this year achieving good or reasonably good outcomes on safety. On average, 50% of prisoners said that they had felt unsafe at some time, and at large inner city local prisons, like Liverpool, Leeds and Pentonville, this figure rose to around 70%. Local prisons also perform poorly for purposeful activity, with substantial numbers of prisoners spending more than 22 hours locked in their cells.
So, as the former director general of the prison service Phil Wheatley highlighted on the Today programme on Monday, the problems at HMP Birmingham are symptomatic of a wider crisis in our prison system which has beset local prisons in particular. It is not simply a result of a failure of contract management or an inditement of the role of the private sector in our prisons, but the product of something more deep-seated.
Arguably, only a concerted effort by government and parliament to match the demands on the system to the resources available to it would reduce the risk of future urgent notifications. In the meantime, one way in which to ease pressure on hard pressed local establishments would be to stem the flow of people coming into them. Of the 65,000 people sent to prison in 2017, almost half (47%) were sentenced to serve six months or less. The government’s own research has shown that short prison sentences are less effective than community sentences at reducing reoffending, particularly for petty but persistent offenders. Yet, the use of community sentences in England and Wales has more than halved in only a decade. In Scotland, by contrast, there is a legal presumption against the use of very short prison sentences. It’s early days, but custody has dropped while the use of more effective community punishments has risen.
England and Wales should follow Scotland’s lead. Reducing the use of short prison sentences won’t solve every problem our prisons face. But it would make a real difference to prisons like Birmingham. Prison ministers tend to come and go pretty rapidly. If Rory Stewart wants to make his mark, it’s the best place to start.
Mark Day is Head of Policy and Communications at the Prison Reform Trust