MoJ rejects call for inquiry into Birmingham prison crisis
“We already understand what happened at HMP Birmingham,” the justice secretary has said.
The Ministry of Justice has rejected the prisons watchdog’s call for an inquiry into the circumstances that led it to seize control of Birmingham prison.
This week HM Prison and Probation Service, which took over the running of HMP Birmingham from the security firm G4S on 20 August, published a nine-page action plan setting out how it will improve standards at the prison. The Ministry of Justice announced the unprecedented “step-in” following an inspection that revealed what Peter Clarke, the chief prisons inspector, called “some of the most disturbing evidence that inspectors ... have seen in any prison”.
Following the inspection, Clarke called on justice secretary David Gauke to urgently address the “squalor, violence, prevalence of drugs and looming lack of control” inspectors witnessed and to carry out an immediate inquiry into the “causes of failure”.
In his response, Gauke said work had begun to improve conditions and that his ministry would “learn lessons for the management of other private prison contracts”.
However, he said an independent assessment of the circumstances that led to the step-in was not needed. “I strongly believe that we already understand what happened at HMP Birmingham,” he said. The ministry has “gained significant insight” from Clarke’s assessment and the Independent Monitoring Board, which monitors prisoners’ welfare, he said, as well as its own investigation after a prison riot in December 2016.
“Unfortunately, the story at HMP Birmingham is a relatively familiar one to us,” he added.
A spokesperson for the ministry confirmed to CSW that it has no plans to commission a review.
The MoJ is now in the process of reducing the prison’s capacity by 300, which it pledged to do last month. The reduction – identified as the highest priority in the action plan – is two-thirds complete and will be finished by the end of September, Gauke said. The prison service has also delivered on its promise to install a new governor and hire additional prison officers, physical education instructors and custodial managers.
Reducing prisoner numbers will “improve decency, reduce operational pressures, and increase staff and managerial capacity to drive improvements”, the plan said.
To keep numbers down, prisoners from four West Midlands courts will be sent to HMP Hewell in Worcestershire, according to the plan. The justice department will continue to monitor population levels in the coming months and will not increase capacity “until we deem it is appropriate and are assured it can be achieved safely in decent conditions”, Gauke said.
“These steps will increase pressures elsewhere, which is not ideal, but HMPPS assess that those impacts are manageable and appropriate given the priority that must be given to Birmingham,” he wrote. He said the prison service will work with governors across the prison estate to mitigate the impact on other prisons."
Reducing capacity will allow the prison to temporarily close wings to remove its “most dilapidated accommodation”, which is another top priority in the plan. A full assessment of the remaining accommodation will be carried out, along with an audit of cell furniture, equipment and clothing.
The document also set out plans to curb violence by developing a safety strategy and tackling a backlog of investigations into violent incidents. Weekly disciplinary meetings will be held to manage the most violent prisoners.
New measures will meanwhile be put in place to support prisoners at risk of suicide and self-harm and to safeguard prisoners found to be isolating themselves in fear of violence.
The plan also included efforts to identify and reduce prisoners’ supply of illegal drugs and improve the prison's drugs strategy.
The justice ministry has “put in place systems” to record the additional costs to the prison service of the takeover, which will be paid by G4S, Gauke said. G4S will also receive a reduced fee for cells taken out of use.
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