In advance of the expected Parliamentary statement from Justice Secretary Liz Truss later today, the latest Guardian editorial makes it clear where it stands on the vexed issue of prison early release:-
The Guardian view on the Birmingham prison riot: a call for action
The riot in Birmingham prison last Friday, which at its height involved more than a third of the prison’s 1,450 inmates, was the worst since the Strangeways riot in Manchester 26 years ago. Moving the perpetrators out of Birmingham so that repairs can begin has put the stability of other prisons on a knife edge. As the justice secretary, Liz Truss, who will make a statement to MPs on Monday, acknowledged last month when she announced that an extra 2,500 officers were to be recruited, many of Britain’s prisons are dangerously understaffed and experiencing unprecedented levels of violence; Birmingham’s annual monitoring report emphasised just those problems. This crisis, like other crises in the public services, has been years in the making. As Britain enters its seventh year of austerity, there is no respite in sight. But prisons offer a real chance to show how to do more with less.
The chairman of the parole board, Nick Hardwick, who was until January the chief inspector of prisons, warned in a BBC interview on Sunday that the current balance between prison population and the number of officers was unworkable, and that on their own the new officers were not enough. More than 7,000 prison officers have gone since 2010 when Ken Clarke became justice secretary and promised a revolution in rehabilitation. Mr Clarke wanted shorter sentences – he proposed halving the sentences of offenders who entered guilty pleas – and a cut in reoffending, to reduce the prison population by 3,000. He offered up cuts of £2bn to the Treasury, nearly a quarter of the department’s £9bn budget; and by early 2013 the figures showed the first fall in prison numbers since the 1990s. But by then Mr Clarke had been replaced by Chris Grayling, with a brief to be tough on punishment, and numbers started to rise again, without any reverse to the shrinking budgets.
After Mr Grayling came Michael Gove, who spoke persuasively about the need for reform. But there was no change in the state of Britain’s prisons – now routinely condemned by the prisons inspectorate, who describe crumbling buildings and rat and cockroach infestations. There are not enough staff, and many are relatively new recruits, so in most jails few prisoners are constructively occupied; many are locked up almost all day, every day. In the year to June, 105 inmates killed themselves. At the same time there is a huge increase in the availability of psychoactive drugs, sometimes flown in by drones, that greatly exacerbate levels of violence. In the words of Peter Clark, Mr Hardwick’s successor as chief inspector, in his first annual report, “the grim situation [described in Mr Hardwick’s last report] has not improved, and in some key areas it has, if anything, become even worse”.
This is the mess that Liz Truss inherited when she was made justice secretary by Theresa May in July. Last month she unveiled a modest plan for reform, and some experts applaud her efforts to get a grip on a fast-deteriorating situation. She persuaded the chancellor, Philip Hammond, to release the cash for the extra staff announced in November. But they will take months to recruit and train – and, as the weekend’s events show, time is one of the commodities she does not have. In those circumstances, she was ill-advised, when she launched her prison reform white paper in early November, to rule out reviving the changes that Mr Clarke was forced to drop four years ago.
She expressly ruled out what she called “arbitrary reductions” to the prison population. That sounds as if she is resisting the demand now made by every one of her predecessors since 2005 to review the cases of the more than 3,000 offenders held on indeterminate sentences for public protection, even though some were originally imprisoned for minor offences and have been detained for far longer than the maximum sentence. Instead she restates the official line that reducing reoffending is the way to cut prisoner numbers. That is a pledge which sounds increasingly hollow in the face of the chief inspector of probation’s criticism last week of some of the private providers who run probation services.
In the Commons Ms Truss will almost certainly pledge to bring down the full force of the law against inmates involved in the Birmingham riot. But that means more prisoners in prison for longer – and the cost is high, yet the regime that is threatening the stability of many more prisons remains unchanged. Almost all prisons are operating at or near 100% capacity. This is just not sustainable. Ms Truss must think again about early release. Prison isn’t working.
Article in today's Guardian:-
Birmingham prison riot: government was warned two months earlier
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”.