Monday, 17 April 2017

Sam Gyimah: Droning On

It seems our dysfunctional Ministry of Justice (MOJ) never learns the truth of the old saying that when you have already dug yourself a very deep hole, it’s best to stop digging. This week it’s hapless Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah who is the star of the clown show.

Sam Gyimah: Prison Minister
The issue of drones being used to courier drugs, mobile phones and other contraband into our out-of-control prisons has already been the cause of much mirth following the excruciating faux pas by Justice Secretary Liz Truss in the House of Commons back in December. In the aftermath of the merciless mockery she has endured in both the national news and on social media in response to her bizarre comments about barking dogs deterring drones, you might be forgiven for imagining that she would never want to hear mention of the subject again. Not so, apparently. Now Mr Gyimah (who very obviously barely suppressed his own urge to laugh out loud at his boss in the Commons) is in on the act.

“We are absolutely determined to tackle the illegal flow of drugs and mobile phones into our prisons and turn them into places of safety and reform. The threat posed by drones is clear, but our dedicated staff are committed to winning the fight against those who are attempting to thwart progress by wreaking havoc in establishments all over the country,” he proclaimed.

Call for the Flying Squad
As anyone who knows anything about prisons and the problems posed by the smuggling of contraband will confirm, remote controlled drones represent a very, very small part of a much bigger security crisis across our prison estate. Virtually every report issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) confirms what is already well known: jails in England and Wales are awash with drugs and mobile phones. And the vast bulk of this contraband is not being flown in on flimsy little drones that cost less than £100 in Argos.

Nevertheless, the MOJ – always anxious to be seen to be ‘doing something’ – has just announced the launch of a ‘national initiative’ that will see prison authorities pool intelligence about drones with the police. An astonishing £3 million is likely to be earmarked to set up this new task force, while the much bigger issue of how the vast majority of contraband consignments actually get into our chaotic prisons remains largely ignored.

Contraband this way...
I have written previously about the highly controversial subject of corruption among prison staff (uniformed and civilian) – see here – and recent prosecutions of corrupt staffers confirm that their pivotal role in what has become an incredibly lucrative business cannot simply be ignored. HMPS employees have a degree of access to prisons that outsiders can only dream about.

Time and again I’ve had it confirmed by long-serving members of the prison staff that there is often little or no searching of staff by security officers. As one remarked to me recently, “I’ve worked in prisons for over eight years and I have personally NEVER been searched going into my workplace.”

This means that unless a corrupt individual is extremely unlucky, the risk of being caught red-handed is likely to be incredibly small. It’s my suspicion that those staffers who do get apprehended with holdalls full of drugs, mobile phones and SIM cards have already been the subject of tip-offs in the run up to their arrest.

Not likely to be 'plugged'
However, the relatively small number of HMPS employees who are caught, prosecuted, and often jailed for their crimes, cannot account for the vast expansion in the availability of illicit mobile phones inside our prisons. Last year alone, MOJ figures state that over 20,000 mobile phones and SIMs were seized by officers, an incredible amount, and up nearly 20 percent on the number of seizures made in 2015 (that year it was nearly 17,000 handsets and SIMs). Back in 2014, the total was just 9,745. Someone, somewhere is making enormous profits from this vast criminal enterprise since even basic phone handsets are changing hands inside for up to £600.

Moreover, not all of these phones are tiny so-called ‘BOSS-buster’ handsets that can be concealed inside bodily orifices and beat the BOSS chairs that are supposed to scan for illicit electronic contraband in jails. As is evident from mobile footage being shot in prisons and then posted on social media, many prisoners are in possession of full size smart phones, including iPhones.

Busted by BOSS?
I defy anyone of normal human physique to ‘plug’ an iPhone 6 without requiring subsequent surgical intervention. Such items are also not being chucked over prison walls or landed by drones. Someone with authorised access is walking these phones through the gate and making a substantial profit on the deal.

Of course, not all contraband is smuggled into prisons by bent staff members. There are plenty of alternative routes as was shown at HMP Northumberland in 2015 when quantities of Class A drugs were discovered concealed inside old mattresses being brought into the prison as part of a recycling operation. It is true that drones are also being used, although the current numbers of incidents is certainly not sufficient to justify spending £3 million of taxpayers’ money on a specialist unit, rather than tackling contraband smuggling as a whole.

Sam Gyimah: trying not to laugh
Unfortunately, the MOJ is currently in the grip of a PR meltdown. Fellow cabinet ministers are busy briefing against the hapless Liz Truss and she has become a figure of fun in the national media. Even the Daily Mail hasn’t been able to resist having a pop at the ridiculous comments that so often just seem to slip out of her mouth. In a desperate effort to regain a shred of credibility, the embattled Secretary of State has now approved the launch of what is likely to become known as the Anti-Flying Squad.

In reality, this public money would be far better spent on developing an effective national anti-corruption unit that would do serious intelligence work to combat the pernicious spread of drugs and phones throughout the prison estate. Highly mobile security teams should be deployed without notice at jails to search anyone coming into prisons, including governor grades, focusing first on those prisons where HMIP have identified serious problems. Such an initiative would cost money, but at least it wouldn’t be wasted on a Keystone Cop-style pursuit of a few dozen drones. It might also tackle the tsunami of crime and corruption that is drowning our prisons in drugs, contraband, bullying, debt and violence.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Firestarters: Burning With Anger

Our dysfunctional prisons are so deeply in crisis that the usual tabloid topics – violence, suicides, drug taking, illicit mobile phones – seem to have been exhausted. In the past few days the focus has been on jail fires, which appear to have become something of an everyday occurrence.

In the real world – that is outside prison walls – arson is considered to be a very serious offence, threatening as it does not only property but also human lives. The maximum penalty for deliberate fire-starting is life imprisonment, even if no one has been killed in the resulting conflagration.

Not much to burn
During my time inside I met a handful of prisoners who had been given Indeterminate Public Protection (IPP) sentences for this very offence. A few were fairly ordinary blokes who had been involved in ‘domestic’ dramas and had then vented their frustration by burning down the family home. One had actually set fire to a police station.

Mercifully there were no casualties in any of these cases, but arson is clearly one of those offences that gives rise to a judge’s suspicion that the arsonist is liable to do it again in the future, hence the handing down of draconian sentences of a notional 99 years (most of the arsonist IPPs had a minimum tariff of a couple of years). As far as I could tell, none of those inmates I met seemed to be serial fire raisers, just average joes who had poor anger management and who had made very bad decisions in a personal crisis.  

Prison fires on the other hand rarely carry serious penalties. In fact the practice now seems to be fairly routine. According to recent media reports, Ministry of Justice (MOJ) figures indicate that there were 2,580 such incidents inside our prisons during 2016. A quick bit of mental arithmetic and that equates to an average of 50 fires each week. According to a BBC report, the MOJ claims that most of these cases were “fairly minor”.

Fire during HMP Birmingham riot
What is more revealing is that some of the worse affected prisons are those that have seen serious disturbances and other types of violence recently, including HMP Birmingham (G4S) and Swaleside. According to MOJ figures, HMP Birmingham recorded 82 fires last year, while Swaleside managed to rack up 73. Other troubled establishments included HMP Nottingham (78) and Serco run HMP Doncaster (75).

Of course, some of these incidents are likely to have been accidents (down to careless smokers or electrical faults), while others occurred in the context of wider protests by prisoners. For a minority, setting fire to a hated prison is the equivalent of an act of violence against ‘the system’. Nevertheless, the overall total has more than doubled compared to the average annual recorded incidents during the period 2005 to 2013. In fact, each year since 2013 has seen a substantial rise. It does seem that as our troubled prisons have become more and more dangerous and dysfunctional, so the incidence of setting fires has risen.

Plenty of combustible items here
Almost all deliberate fires in prisons occur in cells. Although most furnishings are fire-retardant (such as mattresses, blankets and sheets), other commonly available items such as WC paper, clothing and newspapers can go up a treat, especially if assisted by the contents of disposable cigarette lighters which are available from the canteen in those prisons that haven’t yet banned smoking. Given that an estimated 80 percent of adult prisoners smoke, there is plenty of scope for starting a blaze.

The reasons why a minority of inmates decide to burn what few possessions they have are many and varied. Some prisoners undoubtedly get bored and setting a fire is one of the few things (along with causing a flood) that can’t just be ignored by wing staff. No matter what prison officers are doing, they have to respond to smoke pouring out from under a locked cell door. The prisoner gets attention and will be asked by a manager or governor grade what his particular grievances are. Like self-harming, arson produces quick results for frustrated men who may be locked behind bars for 22 or 23 hours each day.

Other prisoners who light fires may be experiencing from a serious mental illness or could be desperate for a transfer out of an establishment in which they are being bullied or victimised. In such cases starting a small cell blaze can be a way of fast-tracking a move either to the safety of the Block (segregation unit) or to another prison.

Fire hose port
Every cell door features a fire hose port that can be unscrewed by staff using a special tool. This enables them to douse the cell with water without opening the door, although in practice the top priority is usually to extract the prisoner(s) from the cell to avoid having to deal with the dangers of smoke inhalation. Very few, if any, prisoners actually intend to commit suicide by self-immolation, so there is rarely a serious casualty as a result of cell fires.

Once available paperwork and wooden furniture has been consumed, there is little chance of the concrete fabric of the cell being damaged. As with most fires, smoke is the actual danger to human health.

At troubled HMP Birmingham a recent cell fire threatened to cause much more widespread disruption because of the design of the ventilation system. When one cell was set on fire, the smoke started filling up the vent and then seeped through into other cells on the wing. Imagine the terror of being confined in a tiny concrete box where windows don’t actually open, as smoke pours through a vent high up on the wall. Fortunately this incident was dealt with without having to evacuate the wing, yet the risks – especially to prisoners who suffer from serious breathing problems – are very real.

HMP Ford burning in January 2011
Prison roof fires are potentially even more dangerous. Back in January 2011 whole prison blocks were torched at HMP Ford in Sussex, while in July 2015 a prisoner managed to set fire to one of the prison’s flat roofs by throwing burning toilet paper up from his cell window. Older jails, particularly open prisons located in former army or air force barracks, still contain a substantial amount of seasoned wood. That’s one reason why very few open establishments are willing to accommodate convicted arsonists who have made it to Cat-D status.

Earlier this month HMP Guys Marsh in Dorset had to be partially evacuated after a protesting inmate got onto the roof, stripped off his clothing and used the garments to set fire to a sizeable section of the wing roof causing serious damage. It’s worth noting that this is a troubled prison where prison inspectors found in 2014 that staff had “all but lost control”.

It seems clear that deliberate arson is an increasingly common feature of prisons in crisis. Prisoners are rarely prosecuted for lighting small fires unless substantial amounts of structural damage have resulted. Most just end up cooling their heels in the Block for some days.

Fire tender at HMP Birmingham
The much greater risk from fire comes when there is serious disorder in a prison and staff members have withdrawn from the affected wings and landings. Full-scale riots often involve the burning of documents from ransacked offices – as happened in December at HMP Birmingham – or cell furniture that is often piled up in the middle of wings to form makeshift barricades. Setting fire to a prison is an effective way of ensuring that it remains out of action for months. It’s worth noting that the most severely damaged wings at HMP Birmingham are still under repair three months on.

Acts of arson are symptoms of the much wider crisis across our prisons. Staff control in a whole list of jails – particularly Cat-B locals – is often tenuous and could be lost at any time, without warning. Prisons that are now routinely short-staffed are particularly vulnerable.

Virtually every prison outside the high security estate runs on a day-to-day basis only because a sufficient number of inmates are willing to cooperate in their own incarceration. There is now clear evidence that this tacit agreement is breaking down on an almost daily basis and the number of violent incidents is soaring. The destruction of wings at HMP Birmingham should be a warning to us all of what lies ahead unless the prison crisis is taken much more seriously.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Treating – or tricking?

One of the issues that often causes people genuine concern in the modern age is the question of security of their personal data, especially confidential medical information. In recent years there has been a lively debate over proposals for data sharing between the NHS and other agencies, yet when it comes to prisons and prisoners there seems to be something of a ‘black hole’ where elementary patient rights are ignored.

Does it go beyond the door?
The specific issue of professional confidentiality in our prisons seems to be very poorly developed or understood. In theory, at least, prisoners are supposed to be provided with the same level of patient care and treatment as is available to all other users of the NHS, yet we know from successive reports from HM Coroners’ inquests that, sadly, on occasion there have been some very serious shortcomings when individual prisoners have died in custody. I am personally aware of one case in which the healthcare manager in a specific prison resigned following a particularly damning inquest verdict that highlighted medical neglect.

Again – in theory – prisoners’ interactions with professionals working in prisons, including doctors, nurses and psychiatric staff, should be treated in the same way as in the local health centre or clinic in the community. While certain types of information sharing are permissible (particularly to protect the vulnerable or children at risk) I think it is fair to say that most of us would take a very dim view of a local GP or nurse who chose to write a sensational ‘treat and tell’ book exposing our confidential medical information to the wider world, or even in a tabloid newspaper, especially when the patients are identified by their real names.

HMP Altcourse - a G4S prison
I was reminded of this today when I saw that a former psychiatric nurse who had worked at Liverpool’s HMP Altcourse – and who states that she has 38 years of clinical experience – has published a book about her time working at this private prison managed by G4S. The book has since been picked up by a leading tabloid and, in an article, very specific details concerning this nurse’s professional interactions with one particularly notorious prisoner are explored.

Reading the article – although not the book (which I am also not naming as I don’t feel I should be giving it the oxygen of further publicity) – I was struck with a sense that this is clinical information that really shouldn’t be in the public domain. This is not only because of the potential impact on the prisoner concerned, but also because of the likelihood that the newspaper coverage will come to the attention of the victim’s family. Details of a particularly grisly crime, including photos of both the prisoner and the victim, are included in the article.

Healthcare: behind bars
I think it is also important to note that this does not seem to be a scientific study that might be of use to criminologists or forensic psychiatrists, but it is rather an exploitative and sensational book that appears to have been self-published for sale online. To be honest, I was shocked that a qualified health professional who claims to have 38 years of experience couldn’t see the potential conflicts of interest, let alone a probable violation of a duty of care to a former patient who is portrayed as particularly vulnerable.

There would be serious ethical issues involved even if every prisoner mentioned in such a publication had given free consent, yet I very much doubt that this was obtained, let alone permission from the families of victims involved in specific crimes. Perhaps if names had been changed or anonymised, the potential breaches of trust might have been largely avoided, yet it is clear that real names and specific offences are being described in gory detail.

In my view the publication of this book – and others like it – are a serious indictment both of our present prison system and of the professional bodies that are supposed to regulate staff members that provide medical and clinical care to prisoners. I believe strongly that this duty of care and confidentiality should not cease when either a prisoner is released or a healthcare professional retires. Surely this should be reflected in staff employment contracts?

Asking the right questions
The potential pitfalls should be there for all to see. If serving prisoners become aware that even a tiny minority of healthcare staff might be intent on publishing sensational books or giving interviews about them to the tabloid media then it is hard to see how any degree of trust can ever be established between patient and practitioner. What negative impact could that have on inmates seeking medical help in a time of crisis or illness? Should prisoners forfeit the right to basic levels of clinical confidentiality simply because they are in custody?

I recall that when I was in prison I was asked by a healthcare department to sign a document giving my permission for the sharing of my medical data with the prison authorities. I declined, not because I had anything I wished to conceal about my own health but because no one could explain why this access would be of any specific benefit to me. Indeed, I have come across cases where the sharing of prisoners’ medical information - for example a diagnosis of autism - has impacted negatively on indeterminate sentenced inmates’ chances of parole.

Let's talk about medical ethics
This sort of book merely feeds to public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for sensational information about prisoners who have committed notorious crimes. As always there is a wide gulf between wanting to know private information about others and the right to have access to it.

Surely at a time when we have a well documented mental health crisis across our prison estate, any publication that further undermines the very fragile relationship of trust between prisoners and prison medical staff should be a matter of concern for the Ministry of Justice and for the wider prison service. So, will any action be taken to be prevent unauthorised disclosure of clinical data? I’m afraid I’m not taking a deep breath.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Death in Custody (Guest Post)

The latest in a series of guest posts for this blog is a new poem written by Patrick C. Notchtree. Patrick is the author of a ‘fictional biography’ - a trilogy now published as The Clouds Still Hang (2012) - as well as Apostrophe Catastrophe And Other Grammatical Grumbles (2015). His previous poem for this blog, The Visit, can be found here.

At a time when suicides and self-harm in our prisons have reached an all-time high, it is vitally important that we recognise the terrible impact of deaths on prisoners' families and loved ones. This poem expresses just a tiny fraction of the pain and sorrow that lie behind the routine Ministry of Justice statements that 'every death in custody is a tragedy'. This is a timely reminder that every death in prison is actually the loss of a human being and that the pain goes on hurting.

Patrick is currently raising money in memory of Stephen to support the work of the PDSA. Anyone who would like to contribute is invited to click on this link: PDSA - Stephen Quinnell

Death in Custody

In memory of Stephen Quinnell (aka James Phillips) 1981-2016

They called my name, approach with care
Why have they come, do they care?
Two sad faces with the news I dread
My love, my friend, at his own hand – dead!
They take their time, let the news sink in
A fight in my head, I struggle with reality
Will I never again have the joy of
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too briefly, the touch of you?
And I so want as well
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

Condolences come from far and wide
Friends, both real world, and online too,
Our solicitor, even, who knows us both well.
And flowers from those who the visits provide.
But all I can feel is knowing that I
Can’t have again
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too briefly, the touch of you.
And I so want as well
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

Police on the phone, coroner too.
So much grief but so much to do.
In a way it helps, it keeps you still there
Somehow ‘alive’, your short life to share
Just thirty-five, not really got started.
I’m pleading, begging, that I might yet view
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too briefly, the touch of you.
And I so want as well
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

Why did you do it? I know only too well;
A lifetime of grief from that childhood abuse.
And may that man, still free, yet rot in hell.
Your own errors too, compounding the damage
I weep and I cry, but what’s the use?
Despite all I could do, it wasn’t enough
I know I will miss, however tough,
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too loving, the touch of you.
And I so crave as well
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

I set it all down, five pages long
The trials of your life that led to this end.
From shattered boyhood you tried to be strong,
But the nightmares remained, but even your friend
Was not enough and you did reoffend.
You never hurt anyone, I know that is true,
But that terrible legacy was the downfall of you.
My life goes on but from now on without
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too loving, the touch of you.
And I so crave as well
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

They sent me the letters, written that night,
That you left me, re-living your pain.
Long letters, page after page
Outpouring of grief, torment and rage.
So hard to read, but they show you were sane,
‘Balance of mind’ intact, it’s quite plain.
But now I must live without, for an age,
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too loving, the touch of you.
And I so need as well
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

I went to the prison to visit your cell,
The place where you ended your private hell.
I had imagined it Spartan and white,
But the reality was far from bright.
Rough plaster, painted dark grey,
Small and drab. Like an underground cellar.
A pigeon hole for a human being.
I sat on your bed, where you used to lay
But which you then used, on end, for the noose.
Your only way out from the torment of abuse.
I picked up your glasses, so personal, so you
That’s when I cried, despite the accompanying screw.
Was this the last place that ever had known
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too much, the touch of you?
In there I could sense
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

They held a short service in memory of you.
You had said they would, with prisoners there too.
You’d asked me to go, so how could I not.
A Christian service, as no doubt you knew
Which would have amused you, as you believed not one jot.
But is was warm and loving with many kind words
The prisoners spoke well of you, their pain seemed real too
I spoke about you, with words well received
About childhood abuse and the legacy it leaves.
Then I went away, they back to their cells
Unlike me though, they won’t miss
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And oh so much, the touch of you.
And I mourn for as well
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

I wanted to see you, they offered the chance
To see you again, a final chance.
Steeling myself I entered the room
Curtained, quiet solitude, I held my heart numb.
As I got closer I saw your dear face.
As always the sight of you made my pulse race.
But then I was by you, and you were so still.
I stroked your hair: “Wake up!” I wanted to shout
I thought you just might and brush me aside
“Gettoff me hair”, and give me a clout.
Your hands were so cold, and I saw your slim chest
Misshaped under clothing, where post mortem had messed.
I realised again that despite this last look
This was the last I ever would see
The sight of your face.
No sound of your voice,
And cold, too cold, the touch of you.
No trace now forever.
No scent of you,
No taste of you.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
I sorted your funeral, as I knew I must.
As next of kin, it’s all mine to do
I did my best, to honour you.
More people came than I thought might
I hope you think I got it about right.
As the curtains closed round with you in the coffin
I tried not to think of the coming cremation
As the shell that was you met its conflagration,
Knowing that now, never again
Will I ever again have the joy of
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
The warmth, the love, the touch of you.
And I try to imagine
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

It seems unreal but I must face
In my life there is an empty space
I have my family, in which I am blessed
Unlike yours, who left you bereft.
I have the ground ashes, all left of you
I will take time to think what to do.
Maybe the stadium where your loved football team play
Some for a ring perhaps, so I’ll always have you
Perhaps on the Med, where we spent such happy days.
But whatever I do, I will always love you
And do my best to remember
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
Loving and kind, the touch of you.
And I’ll keep in my heart
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

© 2016 Patrick C Notchtree

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Kicking Off… Why Prison Riots Happen

In the aftermath of Friday’s events at HMP Birmingham I wanted to share a few thoughts about prison riots and why they occur. The main reason for the delay has been the fact that I’ve spent so much time explaining many of the same things to journalists who are also trying to make sense of the situation.

HMP Birmingham: 'The Green'
In writing this post, I think it is important to make a distinction between prisoners who protest about poor conditions or mistreatment by refusing to return to their cells or by organising sit-downs or by going on the wire netting that is stretched between landings and those who riot with the intent of destroying the fabric of the prison or else attack staff or fellow inmates. The events in Birmingham on 16 December were, by any measure, a major riot. Had the rioters managed to reach the prison roof, as some tried, then it might have gone on far longer than 12 hours. Mercifully there were very few injuries and only one prisoner required hospital treatment. Staff on the wing could have been taken hostage. That they weren’t may also say something about the aims of the rioters.

Although I’ve previously blogged about the weasel words that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) uses to describe riots in our prisons – ‘disturbances’ or ‘incidents of concerted indiscipline’ (see blog post) – mass disorder on the scale seen at HMP Birmingham has actually been fairly rare, at least until recently. However, when they do happen, there is often a very considerable cost, both financial and human. Early estimates of repairing the damage to the fabric and security systems at Winson Green are already running into the millions of pounds for embattled G4S which holds the contract to run the prison.

Cold showers & riots?
Predictably, some sections of the media – especially the red top tabloids – have been peddling the misleading narrative that prisoners at The Green (as it is widely known in prison circles) went on the rampage because the showers were cold or due to a failure of the in-cell TV system. Neither claim is factually true as an explanation, although such issues can easily play a role in lighting the spark that sets off the powder keg. However, the mass media does have a tendency to try to attribute serious prison problems to seemingly minor or even silly causes – such as the death of an inmate’s pet hamster.

In reality, prison riots usually occur in very troubled prisons that have an extended history of poor management, as well as inmate discontent and frustration. It is rare that one single incident or decision by a governor leads directly to an explosion of rage by prisoners. There is almost always a whole series of issues and complaints that have gone unaddressed for weeks or even months.

There has been widespread speculation that the riot at HMP Birmingham was solely due to staff shortages. Having too few officers on wings definitely doesn’t help to diffuse tensions. If prisoners’ complaints and written applications are being ignored or it takes staff weeks or months to answer, then inevitably frustrations and a sense of grievance can flourish unchecked. When angry men feel that they are being ignored, some come to believe that only by smashing up the environment around them will their voices finally get heard. I think it is safe to say that the whole country is now aware of the situation.

Not such a warm welcome?
Of course, leaving prisoners locked up on their cells for 22 or 23 hours a day – due to staff shortages or lack of activities – can also play a major role in fuelling tensions. Some of the specific complaints made about the daily regime at Winson Green include the regular cancellation of exercise periods and access to the gym. Perhaps small issues in themselves, but they do add up over many weeks and months.

Very similar grievances sparked off the riot at HMP High Down back in 2011 when protesters described themselves as being ‘banged up like kippers’. When eleven of these prisoners were charged with the serious offence of prison mutiny and went on trial in 2014 with the prospect of an additional ten years on top of their sentences, the jury heard evidence from the governor of the appalling conditions at the prison and duly voted unanimously to acquit them all (see blog post). The verdict was a very serious humiliation for the then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. This case should be an important lesson for his successor to bear in mind as she continues to threaten dire retribution against the Birmingham prisoners.

In many of my recent media interviews I have also tried to draw attention to the high prevalence of mental illness among prisoners, much of which goes untreated and unaddressed in our dysfunctional prisons. Long days of cellular confinement tend to seriously exacerbate mental health problems as does a lack of opportunities for productive activity and association with others.

Justice Secretary Liz Truss' statement
HMP Birmingham has a troubled recent history. Just reading recent reports prepared by the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) and other official bodies such as HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) highlights many concerns over how the prison was functioning in the months running up to the latest incident (see the IMB report here). Questions also remain unanswered about why the MoJ and its ministers – Secretary of State Liz Truss and Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah – failed to react to the IMB report on HMP Birmingham delivered a few months earlier and at least ensure some urgent remedial action was instituted. In the event, it seems that neither did anything at all - a state of affairs that appears to have troubled even some Conservative back benchers.

The problems identified at The Green have now become common across much of the prison estate. Easily availability of drugs of all kind, particularly so-called new psychoactive substances (NPS), certainly plays a role in fuelling violence between prisoners, as well as unpredictable behaviour from some of those who use ‘Spice’ and ‘Mamba’. However, my own view is that the sheer poverty of daily existence at The Green and the frustrations of what sounds like one long lockdown probably played at least as great a role in the recent trouble as drugs did.

HMP Birmingham - aerial view
Even at the best of times, Cat-B local prisons (usually grim Victorian red brick piles in major cities) are highly volatile places. They receive prisoners straight from court – both on remand and convicted – as well as people on recall for breaching their licence conditions. Many of these men are still in the grip of addictions or living with serious mental health crises. Even those using prescribed medications for their medical conditions can find themselves deprived of these for days or weeks until they have been assessed by the prison healthcare team. It also often takes far too long to identify those newly arrived inmates who require a place in a secure hospital.

Some prisoners in a Cat-B local will be merely passing through or serving ridiculously short sentences of a few weeks or even days, during which nothing meaningful in terms of support for their drug habits or mental health conditions will be on offer. Others coming in from the dock will just be starting to come to terms with very long sentences that stretch out before them like a train track into a very dark tunnel. Many will be scared or disorientated and a lot will be very angry, at themselves and at other people. Some will self-harm and others will commit suicide. None of this makes for a very safe or predictable environment and those are just some of the reasons that Cat-B locals tend to be so troubled and potentially explosive.

HMP Ford in flames (Dec 2010)
In contrast, Cat-B and Cat-C ‘trainers’ (prisons that cater for more settled prisoners at different stages of their sentences) often appear to be much calmer and less prone to mass outbursts of violence or destruction. Of course, there are always exceptions to this. Even an open prison like HMP Ford can succumb to serious trouble, as at New Year’s Eve in 2010 when large parts of the prison went up in smoke when some prisoners rioted over alcohol testing. It’s worth noting, however, that on that occasion other prisoners tried to stop the rioters or at least tried to extinguish the fires.

And this is an important point. During most prison riots there is almost always a significant number of prisoners who aren’t involved. Some try to stay safe in their cells or hide from others who are intent on doing as much damage as possible. In fact, it can be a very dangerous environment on wings for those who don’t want to get involved. They run the risk of being branded collaborators or ‘screwboys’ who aren’t loyal to their fellow inmates.

There have also been other, much more serious prison riots than at Birmingham since the infamous episode at Manchester’s HMP Strangeways back in 1990. As recently as April 2009 HMP Ashwell in Rutland suffered such a catastrophic disturbance that whole wings had to be abandoned and the costs involved were so astronomical that they were never rebuilt. The whole complex eventually had to be abandoned and it is currently used as a film set for prison movies.

Prison riots can be terrifying
How the prison authorities behave in the aftermath of a serious riot is also very important. Damage to the security systems at The Green and the fact that an officer’s keys were seized by prisoners have led to full scale lockdown for nearly a week, even for those prisoners who were on other wings where there was no trouble.

Reports are coming out of these prisoners not being allowed out of their cells, of poor food, of delayed medication, of being denied access to payphones to call their families and of mail not being handed over. This is starting to appear to be a form of ‘collective punishment’ on those who weren’t involved in Friday’s riot and risks fuelling tensions among other inmates. Insiders are now pointing to signs of recent trouble among prisoners on C-wing, one of those areas unaffected by the rioting.

So far, over 500 of The Green’s 1,450 inmates have been transferred to other prisons. Some of these men have been literally carried onto secure vans, most have left without any of their personal possessions and may be taken to jails many miles away from their families just before Christmas. A few have even smeared themselves with human excrement (a ‘dirty protest’) in a bid to halt, or at least delay, their transfer. Upon arrival at other establishments – such as HMP Hull and Bullingdon (Oxfordshire) – there have been reports of continuing resistance and further minor disturbances. Almost all of these receiving prisons are themselves reported to be on a knife-edge and there is a very real risk that G4S is merely exporting its disgruntled prison population across the country, with the result that more trouble could follow.

It is a truth well known to both prisoners and staff alike that most prisons can only be run with the tacit cooperation and involvement of a majority of the inmates. Prisoners do many of the essential day-to-day tasks required for the running of any jail - from cleaning and working in the laundry to preparing and serving meals - and on a wing with just two or three officers there is no way to compel the obedience of 150 or more adult men. However, this truce can be fragile and the longer a lockdown is imposed on prisoners who didn’t participate in the riot, the more likely that they will withdraw their cooperation. G4S is currently playing with fire at The Green.

'Sweat boxes' waiting for transfers
I wish I could propose a quick fix for the underlying causes of riots like we have seen recently at HMP Lewes (October), HMP Bedford (November), HMP Moorland (November) and now at HMP Birmingham, but I really can’t. This prison crisis has been years in the making and no government – Labour, Coalition or Conservative – has had the courage to address the fact that the prison population in England and Wales has more than doubled since 1993 when it stood at around 40,000. Of course, budget cuts of £900m since 2011 and a cut in the number of frontline prison staff by 2,500 since 2013 alone have made a desperate situation far worse.

Stepping up the recruitment of more prison staff is a start, but in reality retention of new officers is extremely poor and, in any case, most of the 2,500 new frontline staff promised by Ms Truss will not be recruited, trained and deployed until much later in 2017 or even 2018. Meanwhile, the crisis is set to continue.

The most obvious solutions, such as cutting the prison population by reducing significantly the number of unconvicted prisoners held on remand (between 10,000-12,000 at any time), by speeding up the release of prisoners serving the now abolished Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) who are years over their minimum tariff and by reforming sentencing in our courts to eliminate the use of custody for non-payment of fines, as well as most petty or non-violent offences, do not seem to appeal to our political leaders. Neither do proposals to create secure care facilities for elderly or severe disabled offenders, both groups that place a severe strain on staff resources and prison healthcare, as well as on local hospitals.

All prisoners are categorised by dynamic risk. Arguably, those who are considered to present a ‘low risk’ of reoffending, shouldn’t even be held in custody. Keeping most short-sentenced, non-violent prisoners accommodated in Cat-D open prisons is also probably a waste of taxpayers’ money. Better to focus scarce resources on the containment and rehabilitation of those who actually do pose a continuing risk to the public. However, in order to push such reforms through, real political leadership will be required, especially at the MoJ. Unfortunately both Liz Truss and Sam Gyimah are lightweights, far out of their depth. They need to go. Now.