Britain Takes Over a Private Prison Steeped in Filth and ViolenceLONDON — The British government seized control of a major prison from the private firm G4S on Monday after inspectors reported that the facility had fallen into “a state of crisis,” with prisoners using drugs and administering jailhouse justice with near impunity.
The Ministry of Justice announced on Monday that it would take back control of Her Majesty’s Prison Birmingham for an initial six-month period because of “serious concerns over safety, security and decency” within its walls.
The report released by the prisons inspectorate found that staff members were locking themselves in their offices to protect themselves from the prisoners, and detailed “squalid” conditions, with blood, vomit and rat droppings left on the floor to fester.
The chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, described the Birmingham facility as the worst he had ever visited.
“Think of squalor, filth, the air hanging heavy with the smell of drugs, the dilapidated physical environment, a sense of great instability, the feeling that at any time violence could break out,” he said in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today program on Monday.
“Put all that together and what you have is a sense of an establishment that could not possibly fulfill any of the objectives of imprisonment,” he said. “Surely, somebody must have been asleep at the wheel.”
The intervention is the latest crisis to befall Britain’s long push to hand off state services to private contractors. January saw the collapse of Carillion, a major construction and services company that had been one of the government’s biggest contractors.
The Ministry of Justice said that immediate steps would be taken to bring the Birmingham prison under control, with the first steps being to install a new governor and senior management team and to cut the prison’s 1,200-bed official capacity by 300 places.
Experienced prison officers would also be allocated to help bolster staffing.
“This ‘step in’ means that we can provide additional resources to the prison while insulating the taxpayer from the inevitable cost this entails,” Rory Stewart, the prisons minister, said in a statement.
“We have good privately run prisons across the country, and while Birmingham faces its own particular set of challenges, I am absolutely clear that it must start to live up to the standards seen elsewhere.”
Mr. Stewart told the BBC that as prisons minister he was partly responsible for the prison’s failure, which is why he took what he called the unprecedented action of “stepping in.”
The biggest driver for the violence and disorder at the prison, Mr. Stewart said, had been the use of drugs such as “spice,” a synthetic marijuana, that had been delivered to the prison with drones.
The Birmingham facility recorded 1,434 assault incidents in the 12 months to July this year, the largest number of any jail in Britain.
In 2016, it was the scene of what the Prison Officers’ Association called the most costly prison riots in Britain since a 25-day uprising at Strangeways, a jail in Manchester, in 1990. The 14-hour melee in Birmingham was sparked by a group of men who managed to climb over the netting in one of the prison wings and seize a set of keys. Hundreds of prisoners escaped, causing millions of dollars in damages.
G4S welcomed the government’s decision to take control of the prison, saying that it was faced with exceptional challenges including “increasingly high levels of prisoner violence toward staff and fellow prisoners.”
“The well-being and safety of prisoners and prison staff is our key priority and we welcome the six-month step-in and the opportunity to work with the Ministry of Justice to urgently address the issues faced at the prison,” Jerry Petherick, the managing director of G4S Custody & Detention Services, said in a statement.
This is not the first stumble for the security firm. In 2015, G4S lost its contract to run the Rainsbrook young offenders’ facility after six members of staff were accused of gross misconduct against young people “causing distress and humiliation.”
Last month, Mr. Stewart announced a project to tackle the most urgent standards and security problems facing 10 of Britain’s most challenging prisons.
It includes 10 million pounds, around $12.5 million, in funding to fight drugs, improve security, and boost leadership capabilities through new training.
“No one can hope to change an entire system overnight,” Mr. Stewart said. “But through these vital improvements to 10 prisons, we can set a course for the rest of the estate to follow — leading us to a system that truly rehabilitates, cuts reoffending and ultimately keeps the public safer.”