Monday, 19 December 2016

Government Has Been Warned Beforehand About The Upcoming Riots In Prison


The government was warned two months before a riot at HMP Birmingham involving hundreds of prisoners that the prevalence of psychoactive drugs meant urgent action was needed to prevent attacks on vulnerable prison officers.

A report by the independent monitoring board found that prison officers at the jail “feared for their personal safety” and were terrified about a possible “mamba attack” by intoxicated prisoners. Black mamba is the name of one of a number of illegal psychoactive substances available in prisons.

The justice secretary, Liz Truss, will address MPs on the riot in a Commons speech on Monday.

HMP Birmingham was the scene on Friday of the worst prison riot since the infamous 1990 Strangeways unrest, as more than 600 prisoners ran rampant for 12 hours, setting fires and battling specially trained Tornado Squad officers.

The chaos follows repeated warnings of a prison service in meltdown, with claims of systemic staff shortages and a surge in jail violence including an alleged murder, three large-scale riots and the escape of two prisoners.

Hull prison was on the brink of serious disorder on Sunday night after 15 prisoners were transferred from HMP Birmingham, including one thought to have played a key role in the disorder there and said to have attacked a senior prison officer.

Mike Rolfe, chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association, said it was “only a matter of time” before a prison officer was seriously injured or even murdered in the violence. He said it was inevitable that large-scale disturbances would occur at other prisons in the coming days, weeks and months.

“We’re seriously concerned about the state of prisons, not just with the high levels of violence, but the now regular theme of rioting which is spreading,” he said. “We’ve got serious concerns that there’s potential that this will spread and continue to happen over the next few months until the MoJ [Ministry of Justice] start listening to us properly.”

Nick Hardwick, chairman of the Parole Board, said on Sunday that the situation in the prison system was “very grave”.

“The levels of violence, and suicide, and self-harm are not merely increasing, but the rate at which they are increasing is accelerating, and we have now had a succession of very serious incidents that are unusual, and the fact that you now have this spate of them is a matter for the most serious concern,” he said.

“Successive ministers cannot say that they weren’t warned about this. I, and others, have been warning about this for a number of years, and so the fact that we have reached this state now shouldn’t come as a surprise.”

Hardwick, a former chief inspector of prisons, said government plans to recruit 2,500 prison staff did not go far enough. The number of prisoners needs to be reduced to a manageable level if more jail riots are to be avoided, he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One.

The uncompromising report by the independent monitoring board, published on 27 October, urged the justice secretary, Liz Truss, to take urgent action to combat the widespread availability of psychoactive substances at HMP Birmingham, including “spice” and “black mamba”.

Illicit drugs blighted all wings in the jail, the report found, fuelling a “climate of fear among prisoners” that included bullying and intimidation, and creating unsustainable pressures on emergency and medical services.

“The problem is too great for the prison alone to manage,” the report concluded. It added: “Many staff are now concerned for their personal safety as well as for the safety of the prisoners and how to deal with the next ‘mamba attack’. A solution is required urgently.”

The report found that cannabis use had actually increased in the prison since April 2016, when psychoactive substances were made illegal.

Last month HMP Birmingham bosses were criticised by a coroner after a prisoner overdosed on a cocktail of drugs while on the detox wing of the jail.

The Birmingham and Solihull coroner, Louise Hunt, issued a Regulation 28 Report – to prevent future deaths – which included 12 matters of concern. These included the need for more netting in exercise yards to prevent drugs being thrown over the wall, more drug-detection dogs and full body scanners in the prison.

The independent monitoring board also warned ministers that serious incidents of violence at HMP Birmingham had increased to the point where safety “cannot be guaranteed” for all. Assaults on staff at HMP Birmingham rose 84% to a record high of 164 incidents last year, according to MoJ figures.

There have been several warnings about prison safety after statistics revealed soaring levels of violence in jails in England and Wales, with assaults on staff up by 43% nationwide in the year to June.

Ian Cruise, an independent councillor in Birmingham who resigned as a prison officer at the West Midlands jail in July, said it was an “absolute madhouse” and should be taken back from G4s control. Cruise said he quit the Category B jail because he felt it was “physically unsafe to work in this prison”.

“We used to say we can feel it boiling, something’s going to go. You just felt it,” he told the Guardian. “It builds and it builds. If you’ve got something that’s simmering, you get to the stage where it boils over and once it does you get situations like what happened on Friday.”

Cruise said prisoners would become irate that the hot water and electricity would go off fairly regularly, threatening to “smash their cells up” because their televisions would not work.

It is thought that Friday’s riot may have been sparked by a relatively small protest about cold showers in the Victorian jail, which holds 1,450 prisoners.

A G4S spokesman said boilers are fixed the same day they break down and that all boilers in the prison had been changed over the last 12 months at a cost of £200,000.

He added: “Like every prison in the country, it is a constant challenge to tackle drugs by reducing demand and combatting supply. Birmingham is a very busy local prison and sadly we do see prisoners coming to us with significant drug problems, which have often developed over many years. Our drugs intervention team works hard to manage prisoners’ addictions and try and divert them into work, education and other purposeful activity.

“We will continue to work with the Ministry of Justice and our partners locally to continue to provide prisoners with the opportunity to turn away from drugs and crime.”

About 240 prisoners from Birmingham were transferred to other prisons on Saturday, with trouble flaring almost as soon as 15 suspected rioters arrived at HMP Hull on Sunday.

The Prison Officers’ Association said an officer was attacked, CCTV cameras were torched and prisoners refused to return to their cells following the arrival of the men, one of whom is thought to have played a lead role in the Birmingham disturbance.

The riot raises the prospect of further wildcat strikes by prison officers following the walkout by up to 10,000 staff in November in a protest over rising jail violence.

Rolfe said more than 30 staff had left HMP Birmingham in recent weeks and that G4s had set about “disposing of” higher-paid senior staff to replace them with cheaper, less-experienced officers.

He said this strategy had helped G4s turn the jail from a loss-making property to a profit-making prison since it took over in 2011.

“It’s been something that we’ve all seen coming, like a slow train coming over a hill. The crash has finally landed now and this is what’s been caused by trying to bring down costs in a system that you need to fund adequately to ensure you get the right outcomes,” he said.

An advertisement on the G4S website states that the company has 25 openings for the full-time role of prison custody officer in Birmingham for which “no specific previous qualifications or experience are required”.

The job pays £20,228.16 a year for 39 hours a week, the equivalent of just under £10 an hour, as well as “company pension, generous holiday entitlement, training and development”.



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