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What the Birmingham Prison riot tells us about our Prison System.
On the 16th December 2016, HMP Birmingham was plunged into chaos when around 600 inmates initiated a prison-wide riot, having charged a prison officer and stolen his keys. The ensuing riot lasted 12 hours and was only brought back under control with the deployment of specialist ‘Tornado’ squads supported by the West Midland’s riot police. The contractor in charge of the prison, G4S, were unable to manage the unrest and for the duration of the incident the prison was placed back under the control of the Ministry of Justice – who moved to deploy the specialist riot control units.
The BBC claimed to have been contacted by inmates involved in the riots during the event. The prisoners reportedly pointed to HMP Birmingham’s unacceptable provision of healthcare, nutrition and support staff as the cause of the violence – in addition to being placed on ‘lockdown’ all day. This view of the causes of the riot was supported by the Chairman of the Birmingham Prison Independent Monitoring Board, Rodger Lawrence, who conceded that he was aware of a ‘build up of frustration’ within the inmate population about their living conditions and the state of the prison itself.
Bigger than Birmingham.
But as many in the Ministry of Justice would like to suggest, Birmingham was not an isolated event. In the weeks preceding the riot disturbances had been reported at Lewes and Bedford Prisons. The Bedford riot earlier this year was said to have been partly down to massively stretched resources, with a former officer at the facility telling one news outlet that essentials like clothing, toiletries and blankets were unavailable “80% to 90% of the time”. This was echoed by UK prison’s chief Michael Spurr who has argued that there are too few staff in individual facilities, too few spaces within the system as a whole, and too many drugs readily available to inmates. Following the Birmingham riot, Mr Spurr backed up his previous statement by commenting that “we’ve been warning for a long time about the crisis in prisons and what we are seeing at Birmingham is not unique to Birmingham”.
The deficiencies in the national prison system are all too apparent in Birmingham. As one of the UK’s biggest prisons it is undoubtedly suffering from the lack of available spaces in the system; at present the Prison Service has around 1200 available spaces, which is incredibly low when the numerous prison and prisoner types are accounted for. National Chairman of the Prison Officers Association, Mike Rolf, also informed the press that more than 30 HMP Birmingham employees had decided to leave the prison due to conditions there in the weeks preceding the riot. This view was backed by HMP Birmingham’s Independent Monitoring Board, which had also advised increasing the number of staff members prior to the unrest.
Staff at Birmingham had also reported the increased use of psychoactive substances by inmates and that, with staff levels falling, this was over stretching human and capital resources. As every Prison Officer knows, non-aggrieved prisoners make a prison and its staff members safer. The declining quality of care for prisoners, hastened by a lack of investment and too few staff, has seen the suicide rate within the population increase by 28% since 2010, with the number of inmates dying in custody rising by 30% in the same period.
Stemming the tide
Following the riot, 240 of Birmingham’s inmates were relocated to facilities elsewhere in the country. 15 of the 240 were transported to HMP Hull, and immediately tried to incite a further riot at the prison. The group set fire to CCTV cameras and assaulted a senior Prison Officer, before being brought under control by a prison-wide lockdown.
In response to the riot, Justice Secretary Liz Truss has ordered the commencement of a full investigation and told rioters that they will face ‘the full force of the law’. This is in addition to the increased investment and staff numbers announced earlier in the year. If the incident at Hull shows us anything, however, its that this issue is endemic, that it will not go away through token gestures, and will only be contained if the core grievances of officers, staff and inmates are faced head on. As Michael Spurr stated, the ‘serious problems’ in our prison system will not disappear overnight and will take time to resolve’.
As committed representatives of numerous Prison Officers who have been injured at work, we understand the challenges faced by prison staff in testing conditions on a daily basis. If you are a prison officer who has been assaulted or mistreated while at work, read our guide on how to claim or call one of our specialist legal team today on: