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G4S and the Failings of HMP Birmingham

The prison system has come under intense fire recently. Questions have arisen as to whether it is effective in reforming inmates. Newell Legal has previously published an article about the pilot scheme that the criminal legal system is testing in an attempt to alleviate some of the pressure on the system. Coincidentally, that scheme is being carried out in Birmingham, which is at the centre of a new fiasco. It appears that the cracks within the system have become noticeable following a damning report, which was the result of an unannounced inspection by HM Inspectorate of Prisons. The inspection took place between 30 July and 9 August 2018. The report found that prisoners 'used drink, drugs and violence with impunity and the prison's corridors were littered with cockroaches, blood and vomit.' The prison is said to have fallen into a 'state of crisis', with staff locking themselves in their own offices during hours. On the face of it, significant issues regarding human rights violations become apparent. These conditions would clearly be in breach of Article 8 ECHR rights. This raises further questions as to the adequacy of the current provisions that are in place and whether private contractors are suitable to run prisons. The government announcement can be found here.

This recent turn of events has seen the Ministry of Justice seize control of HMP Birmingham from G4S. The government have taken the unprecedented step of seizing control of the prison, removing its governor and transferring hundreds of prisoners, just hours before the report was released by the prisons inspectorate. The Ministry of Justice has stated that whilst no staff redundancies will take place, additional experienced prison staff, as well as a new governor, have been brought in to assist. The report highlights a dramatic deterioration since the last inspection in early 2017. The government has also been urged to launch an inquiry into the conditions of the prison. It was noted that the inspection brought some of the "most disturbing evidence that inspectors have seen in any prison" to light. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, has been on record stating that he has no confidence in the ability of the prison to make improvements. As a result, Mr Clarke has written to the Justice Secretary to put him on notice that urgent action is needed to address significant concerns at a jail under the relevant protocols and procedures.

Pictured: Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons.

G4S, the well-known security firm, was awarded a 15 year contract to run the prison in 2011. Currently, G4S runs 5 out of the16 privately run prisons in the UK. It is not the first time that G4S has been at the centre of controversy. Most notably, G4S were responsible for the disaster surrounding security at the 2012 Olympic Games. More recently, G4S lost its contract in 2015 to run Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre after prison inspectors graded it 'inadequate'. These are just two examples of a long list of failings by the security provider.

It is understood that G4S may once again receive control of HMP Birmingham, should significant improvements be made by the government. In the interim, the HM Prison and Probation Service will run the prison for an initial six months, before evaluating whether G4S are competent to run the prison. The Managing Director of Custody and Detention Services for G4S has welcomed the intervention from the government, noting that G4S look forward to working with the Ministry of Justice to address and reform the issues within the prison itself. Whether G4S will be given a second opportunity remains to be seen. Clearly, the Ministry of Justice will note that under G4S's control, HMP Birmingham has become the most violent prison in England and Wales. The number of assaults on staff at HMP Birmingham rose 84% to a record high of 164 incidents last year. On top of this, there were a total of 1,147 assaults (including fights between prisoners) recorded at Birmingham in 2017. This has increased by 5x since 2012. It is clear that the cuts in staff-prisoner ratios and the high usage of hallucinogens play an integral part in the rise of violence. The more troublesome aspect to this is that there appears to be no contingency plan in place from the government to attack these issues.

It should be noted that the government stepping in to take control of HMP Birmingham does not technically mean that the prison is being nationalised. It is a process that is permitted to be used when a provider is deemed to have breached its contract to run the prison in a safe manner. The positive aspect of this procedure is that there is no liability to the taxpayer, thus protecting public funds. It is the first time that such drastic measures have been used mid-contract. However, it should be noted that the government have stepped in previously to terminate their contracts with G4S. A prime example is the running of Medway Secure Training Centre, which resulted in undercover reporters filming staff apparently mistreating children.

Pictured: Inside HMP Birmingham

However, the Ministry of Justice have stressed that the government does not believe privatisation was at the root of the prison’s troubles. A comparison was made to other G4S prisons, all of which are running well. This was including HMP Oakwood, which had recently received good inspection reports. It appears that at the heart of the issue is that HMP Birmingham is an inner-city prison, which provides its own unique challenges. This has been explicitly acknowledged by Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart. Despite this, one must question the adequacy of such bodies in the running of prisons. The prison system is effectively treated as a business; therefore a commercial entity will have different considerations when compared to a public authority. Although G4S are a private company, the government ought to be held accountable for this situation arising as it would with state controlled prisons. One would have thought that the relevant government bodies would have exercised due diligence and reviewed regularly in order to prevent such horrors emerging. Thus, it can be strongly put that the outsourcing argument cannot absolve the government of its responsibilities. The system used at HMP Birmingham has drawn significant criticism from Charles Falconer, former Lord Chancellor, who has recently written a scathing opinion piece in the Guardian. Lord Falconer of Thoroton does raise important issues that need addressing. The lack of funding within the prison system (both publicly and privately run prisons), the general usage of drugs and the apparent refusal on the part of the government to act feature in his piece.

Time is of the essence. The Justice Secretary has a mere 28 days to put a plan together that will help address the issues within HMP Birmingham. It is clear that the issues within HMP Birmingham reflect a wider systemic difficulty. One would hope that this plan is effective and takes some steps to address the fundamental issues that the prison system faces in order to prevent further problems arising. This would potentially include an overhaul of the prison system, stripping it down and rebuilding it to operate in a more efficient manner. Whether this is done, remains to be seen.

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