A British prison that was taken into state control after plunging into crisis last year is too “fragile” to be handed back to the company that ran it and will remain under public management for another six months, ministers have announced.
The Ministry of Justice took the unprecedented step of taking the running of HMP Birmingham from private contactor G4S in August, following an inspection by the jails watchdog which found open drug dealing, blood and vomit left uncleaned, broken windows and leaking toilets. Some staff were found asleep, while others had locked themselves in their offices. The prison was graded “poor” across all four categories — safety, respect, activity and resettlement.
The takeover was meant to last only six months but Rory Stewart, prisons minister, said on Tuesday that it would be extended until the summer, when the state of the prison will be reviewed.
“We have been clear that the situation at HMP Birmingham was unacceptable, and that the step-in was not only necessary but would be extended unless we were satisfied that sufficient progress had been made,” he said. “While I am confident that the action taken has begun to arrest the decline and brought signs of improvement, the situation remains fragile and removing the support now risks jeopardising the progress made.
“This will provide time for the changes we are making to bed in, for improvements to gather pace, and for a conclusion to be reached on the longer-term future of the prison,” he added.
Peter Clarke, chief inspector of prisons, was so alarmed by the situation he found at the prison in August that he triggered the “urgent notification” process to demand immediate action from the Ministry of justice.
He found inmates walking around the jail “like zombies” while high on drugs, likening the situation to a war zone and described an atmosphere of chaos in which inmates flouted rules without challenge. Staff were “anxious and fearful” as they went about their duties, while frightened, vulnerable prisoners were “self-isolated” in locked cells.
He warned there had been more assaults at the establishment than at any other local prison in the previous year, and explained: “Put simply, the treatment of prisoners and the conditions in which they were held at Birmingham were among the worst we have seen in recent years.”
Responding to the extended takeover, G4S said it was “continuing to work closely with the Ministry of Justice” to bring about improvements at HMP Birmingham.