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Government admits role in Birmingham prison failure

Prisons minister takes share of blame for poor state of G4S-run jail being taken over by MoJ
The government bears a share of the blame for the state of HMP Birmingham, the prisons minister Rory Stewart has said, after the Ministry of Justice was forced to undertake an emergency takeover of the G4S-run jail.
A report by the chief inspector of prisons, published overnight, found drug abuse and violence was rife, prisoners lived in squalid conditions and staff were afraid, sometimes locking themselves away from inmates.
“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,” Stewart told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Stewart, who visited the prison last week, said the work the government had done with G4S over the last six months had not led to adequate improvements.
“This has been a commercially sensitive negotiation, it’s something the government has never done before and it shows how serious the situation is,” he said. “The reason I visited, the secretary of state was visiting, was because we were deeply, deeply concerned.”
Roger Swindells, from the prison’s independent monitoring board, wrote to the MoJ about the poor state of HMP Birmingham earlier in the summer, saying both the MoJ controllers and G4S were responsible.
He said prisoners appeared to be in total control of some wings, and inspectors and NHS staff felt they could not enter some wings because they were being affected by the quantity of drugs in the atmosphere.
“There was a lack of control and undue influence by prisoners in some wings,” he told the Today programme. “You could say they were running those wings … they didn’t have the keys but without a doubt they had a massive influence.”
Stewart admitted more staff were needed, but he also said prison authorities had failed to get a grip of new psychoactive substances, such as spice, which he said caused “crazy aggressive behaviour”.
“One of the fundamental things we are going to have to do is stop these drugs getting in.”
Stewart said he would look at the chief inspector’s recommendation for an independent inquiry into the deterioration, but said he felt there was already “a very clear understanding … about what is going on in that prison”.
Stewart, who said last week he would resign if conditions in 10 public sector prisons did not improve, declined to add HMP Birmingham to that list.
“I’m not going get into giving a blank cheque to resign over every prison in the country,” he said.
“But I am absolutely serious about what I said about those 10 prisons. They are also very challenged prisons by drugs and violence, I believe we can turn them around and if we don’t, I will resign.”
The chief inspector, Peter Clarke, said it was a “reasonable conclusion” that the MoJ 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 Today.
Steve Gillan, the general secretary of the Prison Officers Association called on the justice minister David Gauke to resign and said the government should halt all prison privatisations and open a public inquiry into why the government has missed a succession of warnings from staff.
In a statement released to the Guardian, he said: “The secretary of state needs to resign and there now needs to be a full public inquiry into the prison system in England and Wales. We cannot continue like this. Government should now halt any other intention to privatise.
“The warning signs have been at Birmingham for all to see yet ministers have buried their heads in the sand and chosen to ignore it. They knew Birmingham was struggling before and after the riot [in December] yet chose to do nothing,” he said.
Gillan said ministers should be held responsible for privatising a prison for ideological reasons.
“We have always faced a political ideology from government and now we are seeing the realities.
“There should be no blame attached to prison officers and related grades at Birmingham for this crisis. The blame must lay with government for their ridiculous policies that have caused the prison crisis, not just at Birmingham but up and down the country,” he said.