Drug-addled inmates at one of Britain’s biggest private prisons walked around like “zombies” in scenes likened to a war zone, inspectors found when they made an unannounced visit last summer.
Conditions were so bad at Birmingham Prison that the inspectors triggered an urgent notification to the Ministry of Justice to place the institution back under public management.
A scathing report published today HMP Inspectorate of Prisons tells how brazen inmates flouted rules without challenge from staff, many of whom were “anxious and fearful” as they went about their duties.
The report said: “We witnessed many prisoners under the influence of drugs, and some openly using and trafficking drugs around the site.
“Shockingly, some staff were ambivalent and accepting of such behaviour, and failed to respond to this overt drug misuse.”
On one occasion, when inspectors reported smelling drugs an officer was said to have “shrugged and laughed”, while another said they had “only just come on duty”, according to the report.
Frightened and vulnerable prisoners “self-isolated” in locked cells that were “dirty, cramped and overcrowded” but could not escape bullying and intimidation, while control in the prison was “tenuous”, with staff often not knowing where prisoners were.
Peter Clarke, chief inspector of prisons, said that although managers with private contractor G4S had sought to improve conditions following a riot in 2016, his inspection two years later found the jail had plunged into even greater chaos and disorder.
In a damning assessment he said: “Far from recovering, the prison had deteriorated dramatically and was in an appalling state.
“Against all four of our healthy prison tests – safety, respect, purposeful activity and rehabilitation and release planning – we assessed outcomes as poor, our lowest assessment.
“This is only the second time we have made such judgments. Conditions at Birmingham were among the worst we have seen in recent years.”
He added: “Why was it that those with responsibility for Birmingham either did not see these problems unfolding or seemed incapable of acting decisively when they did?”
The report found prisoners openly using and trafficking drugs, while some staff at the Category B prison “were ambivalent and accepting of such behaviour, and failed to respond to this overt drug misuse”.
A prisoner at the 1450-man local prison described K-wing as “a war zone, inmates walking around like zombies, high on spice [a psychoactive substance].”
Commenting on the report, Michael Spurr, chief executive of the prisons and probation service, said that G4S’s action on violence and drug use had been “too slow and ultimately insufficient” following a riot in 2016.
“That is why we took decisive action to step in and take control of the prison . Good progress is being made,” he said.
“The prison is safer, cleaner, calmer and more ordered. But there is more to do and we will continue to work closely with G4S to ensure these improvements endure.”
Rory Stewart, prisons minister, added that the government had conducted a “full and thorough investigation” into the situation at Birmingham.
“We will keep a close eye on progress to ensure Birmingham returns to being a place of stability and reform, and we won’t hand the prison back [to G4S] until we consider it is safe to do so,” he said.
Responding to the report, G4S said the wellbeing and safety of prisoners and prison staff was its “key priority”, and that it would continue to work with the Ministry of Justice to “urgently address” the problems at the jail.