The Birmingham prison riot of 2016 has been commonly described as “the worst prison riot seen since the Strangeways riot” (Yorkshirepost.co.uk., 2016) that irrupted in 1990. After the disorder there was a rough estimate of 500 inmates involved as four wings out of a total eleven wings filled into a full-scale riot. It lasted from 12 to 15 hours until negotiations started and the prison was safely under control by authorities. During the over 12 hours of disorder inmates destroyed records, started fires, threw paint at officers, forcefully gained access to the prisons medial supplies and caused general havoc leading to £2million in damages.
Sources in the media suggest that the initial trigger at the Winson Green prison in Birmingham was after four of the inmates got their hands-on stolen keys and was able to release prisoners from their cells while the riot ensued. Since this event many articles and news sources have suggested a number of the prison’s downfalls and staffing complaints, allowing readers to hear the statements from all parties involved. Including ex and current prison officers, G4S, The Ministry of Justice and even the inmates there at the time of the riot.
An eye-opening account of an ex-prison officer’s experience spoke anonymously stating that the officers that worked there when he was a “fresh recruit” had cut to 50% by the time he had left. Government funding was increasingly lacking and since prisons generally had higher staff sickness this added further worries to their continuous understaffing problem. When the prison got taken over by the contractor “G4S”, prison officers saw a complete change in inmates as they were known to notice the G4S uniform and compare officers to ‘security guards’ with no authority. This was just the beginning of the divide that was making its way around the prison (BBC News, 2016).
The Ministry of Justice report was released after the event, stating that they would be bringing “HMP Birmingham back under government control from G4S”. Their report had mentioned that staff at the prison had been “worn down” by staff shortages caused by sickness among the officers and disorganised deployment slowly “relinquished authority to the prisoners” who were policing mostly themselves (Grierson, 2018).
According to Inspectors that visited the prison before the riot they described the officers as being “anxious and fearful” (Elgot, 2017) as well as finding officers asleep during their rotations and locking themselves away in staff rooms in order to avoid prisoners and other members of staff. Inspectors observed inmates sleeping on springs without mattresses. Along with other shocking revelations. The largest revelation being the blatant drug use, trafficking and appalling conditions. Drug use was evident within the prison, one in seven inmates admitted to their drug addition having developed once imprisoned. This fact highlighted by the recent deaths before the riot that saw 3 inmates die from suspected synthetic cannabis use. The poor conditions ranged from the toilet areas where large quantities of blood, rat droppings and vomit were witnessed. The cells had broken windows and lose wires that caused injuries and inmates reported being freezing throughout the day and night.
After the 15-hour riot, Jerry Petherick the managing director for G4S custodial and detention stated that the prisoners “showed callus disregard for the safety of prisoners and staff” (McCarthy et al., 2018).
During the disorder prisoners reached out to the BBC and stated that the largest contributing factor that lead to the riot was due to being on ‘lockdown’ in their cells all day. They also complained about the prison’s poor conditions along with the poor healthcare and nutrition they we’re receiving.
In the Winson Green prison, the day to day interactions between prison officers and inmates had become minimal. With officers changing rotations and failing to build respect, report and generally not producing authority over prisoners. The relationship had broken down dramatically leaving mistrust and a glomming atmosphere noticed by all who went inside. Inmates who expected to be safe, watched as officers perpetuated bullying and drug use by standing by and leaving the prisoners to police themselves.
Officers working in the prison were also reported to have turned on each other. They lacked communication and created a noticeable divide that inmates had even picked up on, between long standing prison officers and new recruits sent by G4S. Once again not presenting an enjoyable workplace for future officers and adding to the understaffing of the prison.
The upkeep of the prison was in disarray, with wires and windows being broken for extended periods of time as well as and blood, faeces and other bodily fluids being left and not cleaned. This made it an uninviting and disorganised way to live for the staff as well as the prisoners. With the upkeep of the prison being so little prisoners are expected to feel uncared for. Prison is not expected to be a wonderful place as it is a sanction, but the total disregard for maintenance can easily upset those who live there. Causing resentment between the staff and prisoners that built up over time.
The structure of prisons is already prone to downfall as the concept focuses on the incarceration of human beings and taking away their agency and freedom to replace with routine, rehabilitation, the justice of serving time for wrong doings and adding a sanction to further sway individuals/groups from committing further crime.
When it comes to prisons and its innerworkings its clear to see where problems arise. Lack of funding is a worldwide worry for government run prisons, and can spiral even further with privatised prisons as large corporate businesses are constantly trying to find new ways for the company to cut costs and further their bottom lines. This is when the prisoner’s quality of life is affected and can lead to the break down in prisons all over the country as inmates’ rebel against the setting.
By using The Broken Windows Theory, it can create an insight as to why the inmates at Winston Green prison decided to create havoc and engage in major crimes such as conspiracy to riot, smashing windows, assaulting officers and breaking laws and codes that are put in place to maintain order and sanity inside the prison walls. The Broken Window Theory suggests that when there is visible crime for example, graffiti and lower level drug offences like the taking and distribution of drugs in an environmental setting it encourages further disruption including much more serious crimes.
In the inspection at the Birmingham prison, drug use was evident as even the smell of cannabis was said to linger around cells. The conditions we’re lacking and prison gangs acted with immunity. Lower-level crimes like these we’re taking place all over the prison and is part of the prisons inner-workings. Crime to prisoners is a normal variation of their life, but by using this theory, it suggests solutions to the reoccurring behaviour, such as policing methods that individually target these minor crimes, doing so helps encourage an atmosphere that promotes order as well as lawfulness and aids in preventing larger crimes from taking place. It tackles authority and makes prisoners continually aware that no crime is tolerated.
After the 15-hour prison riot ensued and authorities managed to gain back control, The Ministry of Justice produced a report claiming that the prison would be leaving G4S and re-joining under government control. This report was one of the most important documents to come out after the riot, as it showed governmental action. Readers and individuals affected by the riots we’re in agreement that someone needed to step-up and take control over what was clearly an issue and take steps in order to find reasonable solution. After the unannounced inspection at the Birmingham prison, downfalls surfaced but we’re not acted upon until after the riot broke out. The Birmingham prison now being back under government regulations instead of being a privatised prison managed by G4S was a turning point. This action now solved a few of the problems that the prison faced. Such as the animosity between prisoners and new guards that came with the take over of G4S, as well as the seemingly unregulated health and wellness of the prisoners, maintenance, and health and safety of the prison.
Although this was a positive turn for Winston Green prison not all issues are easily fixed by the take-over to government authority. Money is still spread thin, with prisoners feeling that the prison staff’s training is so vague that they respond with over-estimated aggression and force. “Younger prisoners often prefer privatised prisons” as they are equipped with newer equipment like better gyms. While older prisoners tend to see the benefits from a government run prisons as they find better trained staff who have worked at the prisons for multiple years and are equipped with the knowledge of how to properly tackle prison tomfoolery (Vice, 2018).
Studies by the US GOA as well as the US Attorney general in 1998 found no evidence to suggest that private corrections have reduced costs or raised performance quality. In fact, they have a history of performance problems, early examples of this include a private prison in Youngstown, Ohio where seven individuals died within its first year of operation in 1997, as well as twenty people stabbed, six escapees and two murders.
Another example of a more recent failing of a privatised prison came in 2010 when three inmates escaped from a private prison located in Kingsman, Arizona. The prisoners kidnapped two tourists, killed them, then proceeded to burn their bodies in their campervan. In an official review of this case, state investigators found that the “perimeters of the prison were left for a whole 15-minutes at the start of every shift, with only 1 guard monitoring the prisoners at the time of escapes” (Lotke, 2016). Not only this but during a 16-hour study period, 89 false alarms over prisoners escaping we’re recorded. Staff started learning to disregard these false alarms causing major health and safety violations for the inmates, staff and importantly the general public. The same prison was also found to have no officer training program and one-third of staff had less than 3 months experience on the job.
It is important to note that G4S Justice Services is currently the largest company in the private prisons sector along with Sector Custodial Services and Sodexo Justice Services that contractually manage 14 private prisons that are located within the UK. G4S we’re actually in the news headlines before the media overflow that hit during and after the Birmingham Prison riot. In 2012, two directors had resigned after a review that revealed G4S being at fault for a security contract between G4S and London Games that had gone sour by G4S failing to recut enough security staff and London Games ultimately drafting in armed forces personnel last minute to recover. Apart from this, in 2012 G4S was again receiving media attention, this time it was criticisms from HM inspectors that were concerned of G4S’s ability of running Mold Prison in Flintshire. Inspectors found “clear weaknesses” in their management plans. Despite inmate safety improvements they found ongoing problems with its training sector as well as the availability of narcotics and lack of confidence in the staff members.
To conclude the main points raised in this case study, the triggers that led to the Birmingham prison riot of 2016 have been discussed. All parties involved such as the officers, inmates, the higher-ups like G4S and The Ministry of Justice have revealed that a general mix of understaffing, unregulated staff training and mistrust between guards and inmates can been seen as the root causes. Prisoners became irritated by the isolation of being on “lockdown” and the profound health and safety levels were concerning. Inmates resisted the privatisation take over meanwhile with little maintenance being conducted. Staff failing to understand how to properly respond in a time of crisis as well as staff letting minor crimes like drug offences and gang violence build up put a strain on the Birmingham prison.
In regards to what can be done to private prisons to make them more successful is unclear, many US/UK MP’s and political figures have stated their discontent for privatised facilities. Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union has stated that “The privatisation of our prison service ought to be a national scandal and that it has happened without any public debate is shameful. It is morally reprehensible that companies are profiting from locking people up and we urgently need an independent review to look at the impact on our communities, staff and prisoners” (The Economist, 2019).
Unfortunately, governments allow privatised prisons as they provide a facility that is desperately needed with more and more inmates every day and government-run prisons becoming full and expensive to expand. The good news being that private prisons in the UK are scarce with a recorded 14 private prisons in England, these prisons all supervised under three contractors. Although the private prison sector is growing in the US.
The broken prison system is a global, political, and social issue that does not come with a quick fix but smaller acts of change can make a difference for the inmates and officers.
More funding for prisons would be the first step needed to incentivise prison officers, conduct better maintenance, health care, education, training and probation. Officers are the first people on the ground and should be highly valuable because of their intensive training and ability to respond appropriately. Staff should not be hired at random and should be appropriately evaluated in order to get the role. Working in a prison and having the power of people’s lives is not for everyone, results from the Stanford prison experiment have provided an example of what can happen when individuals have newly found power over others, and are unequipped and untrained to successfully complete their role in a prison setting.
For the smaller day-to-day issues in prison and court facilities, changes to harsh penalties could help with overcrowding. Sentencing policies play a large role in driving prison growth so reducing sentence length for some offences like property and minor drug crimes would help to combat this. Other changes would be to add more recidivism programs. Inmates can complete these programs to keep them busy, fulfilled and knowledgeable. Completing it also helps to reduce time from the sentences and promotes model inmates with good behaviour. These programs also help to build trust and show the inmates that the prison system is not working against them, it reflects to inmates that if time is being put in, they get rewarded for their good choices.
The support for inmates should not stop once their sentence is served. Offenders recently released need higher supervision levels as it is likely that they may re-offend. Sufficient supervision plays a vital role in reducing re-offending. Introducing mandatory supervision requirements for prisoners would ensure that they receive the right amount of support once released.
The majority of prison offenders are non-violent and non-sex offenders. Expanded parole eligibility to first-time individuals like these would cut cost and over-population. The candidates picked for expanded parole can be released and turned over to less costly options like treatment programs. This meets the needs of the inmate, shortens their length of stay all the while ensuring that the necessary precautions are in place in order to protect the public.