News’ Emily Roberts reports on the HMP Birmingham prison riots from earlier this month
On Friday 16th December, riots broke out in four wings of HMP Birmingham after inmates managed to overpower members of staff and steal their keys. As a result of this, approximately 240 offenders are being moved to different facilities in the surrounding areas, as riot squads work to reinstate order, and the extent of the damage caused is assessed. It has been reported that an official investigation into the security and disciplinary practices of the prison is to be carried out, as it has been revealed that a number of staff members have felt threatened by aggressive inmates.
According to The Guardian, this marks ‘the third [disturbance] in a prison in England in less than two months’, leading many to believe that serious intervention is needed to reduce the levels of violence within these institutions. Furthermore, speaking to the BBC, Mike Rolfe, national chairman of the Prison Officers Association, claimed that the commotion represented ‘the most recent worst incident since the 1990 Strangeways riot’. Though the root of this violent behaviour has not been officially identified, some individuals, including head of the National Offender Management Service Michael Spurr, cite the abuse of ‘psychoactive drugs [and] so-called legal highs’.
Another theory has been linked to the prison’s move from the public sector to the private sector. The facility, which has been privately managed by G4S since October of 2011, is one of the largest in Britain, holding almost 1500 prisoners. However, the amount of individuals employed to oversee the inmates has reduced since then, meaning that crucial responsibilities in terms of enforcing effective discipline and regulation are shared between fewer people. Speaking to Channel 4, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott commented on this, stating that ‘private companies should not be involved… it’s clear that G4S don’t have the quality of staff to manage a crisis like this.’ Leading on from this, alleged prisoners contacted the BBC after the events with claims of ‘inadequate staff numbers [and] poor healthcare and nutrition’, perhaps furthering demands for an investigation into the conditions and living standards of those affected.
When asked about his thoughts on the situation, UoB law student Jack said, ‘it was an excellent showcasing of the incompetence of G4S and how the Government is putting cost before safety.’ However, he also highlighted how policymakers are perhaps constrained by public opinion in this regard; ‘the Government would be heavily criticised if it put money towards prisons as it is seen by many as a “waste”.’ Either way, recent events have indicated that reform is needed, though it is not yet clear what will change, or indeed when these changes will be implemented.