Asking questions on Birmingham prison riot

RB_HMP_Birm_191216.pngAfter the twelve hour riot at HM Prison Birmingham on 16th December, I put a number of questions to Justice Secretary Liz Truss during a statement on Monday 19th December.

WATCH the speech here

READ the speech with the rest of the debate here, or below

I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of her statement. I want to pay tribute to the tornado teams, the prison officers and the emergency services, but the Secretary of State has a prisons crisis on her hands, and it would be helpful if she finally admitted this to the House and to the country. The riot at the privately run Birmingham prison on Friday has been described as

“probably the most serious riot in a B Category prison since Strangeways”,

which was back in 1990.


However, this riot is not the crisis; it is a symptom of the crisis. In recent months there have been disturbances at Lincoln, Lewes and Bedford, and incidents at Hull and elsewhere. Assaults on prison staff are at an all-time high, and prison officers are leaving the service in such great numbers that 8,000 will need to be recruited to meet the Secretary of State’s 2,500 target.

The Secretary of State has questions to answer, and so do the Government as a whole. When the independent monitoring board said back in October that an urgent solution was needed to the prevalence of synthetic drugs in Birmingham prison, what action did the Secretary of State take? How much has Friday’s disorder cost and who is footing the bill for the damage? Will G4S be reimbursing the public purse for the use of public sector staff to sort out the disorder? Does the Secretary of State think it is acceptable that private sector prisons do not have to reveal staffing levels in the way that prisons in the public sector do? If, like me, she does not believe it is acceptable, is she going to do anything about it? Does she regret her vitriolic attack on prison officers in the Chamber on 15 November? It even shocked many of her colleagues. Is it not about time that the Secretary of State starting listening to prison officers on the front line?

Of all prisons in 2015, Birmingham had the highest number of assaults on staff. There were 164 assaults on staff in 2015 alone. The Prison Officers Association, the Public and Commercial Services Union and the Prison Governors Association have warned of this crisis since 2010. It is about time that fundamental questions were asked about the way our prison system is working—or not working. The Secretary of State needs to consider whether or not it is right that private companies such as G4S at Birmingham or Sodexo at Northumberland, where there are also big problems, should be making profit from prisons and from society’s ills.

The Secretary of State needs to turn her mind to the fact that where rehabilitation fails and prison education is cut, reoffending rises. This is a failure to protect society. Privatisation of the probation service, savage cuts to prison staffing, overcrowding in our prisons and cuts to through-the-gate services all stop prison working and put the public at avoidable and increased risk. The Secretary of State should admit that in her overcrowded, understaffed prisons, shorter-sentence prisoners are leaving prison with drug addictions that they did not have when they went in and are leaving more likely to commit more serious crimes than those they were put away for in the first place. This is not protecting society; it is endangering society.

Such is the crisis in our prisons that the Secretary of State needs to develop an open mind on the future of our prisons. Is there anything we can learn from how prisons work in other countries? Perhaps we can learn from some of the experiences in Norway and elsewhere. But one thing is for sure: the USA model of huge, privately run super-prisons is not the way to go.

To conclude, 380 prisoners have been transferred from HMP Birmingham. Where have they been transferred to? Is G4S back running things in Birmingham now? Will the Government review the role of G4S and private companies in running our prisons? Does the Secretary of State finally realise that it was wrong and dangerous to cut 6,000 front-line prison staff in the first place? The crisis in our prisons is a symptom of a failing Government that has lost control.

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