Shine A Light

Broken bones and stab wounds: rising violence at G4S-run Birmingham jail

Steep rise in attacks on staff and prisoners at run-for-profit Winson Green prison.

Clare Sambrook
28 June 2013

Assaults inside HMP Birmingham, run for the government by outsourcer G4S, soared by 46 per cent between 2010 and 2012, the Birmingham Mail reported this morning. Attacks on staff rose by 27 per cent.

The assault figures, released by the Ministry of Justice under the Freedom of Information Act, include a serious incident last year in which four officers were stabbed and slashed by an inmate wielding broken glass.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, told OurKingdom today:

“Private jails make their profits from having lower staffing levels and paying staff lower wages. In effect, the taxpayer gets what the taxpayer pays for. My worry is that when these huge prisons go wrong the effects can be catastrophic. Broken bones and slashed faces are serious, but there could well be suicides and riots in private prisons like Birmingham.”

HMP Birmingham, a Victorian Category B prison holding 1450 men, was the first existing British jail to be privatised. G4S, with police support, has been running the jail since October 2011.

The Birmingham Mail quotes Mark Leech, an ex-offender turned prisons expert: “It always takes time for a new prison to bed down and that is effectively what has happened at Birmingham since the privatisation . . . You will see an increase in control problems, arrests and violence in those early days and I think these figures show part of those problems."

The Prison Officers Association tried and failed to have G4S barred from bidding for Birmingham and other jail contracts. The union argued that G4S had an unfair advantage in the form of their consultant Phil Wheatley, freshly recruited from his public service role — chief executive of the National Offender Management Service.

The company insisted that Wheatley “has not been involved in any part of the tendering process for the current round of prison bids in the UK".

In March 2011 the government handed G4S a fifteen-year contract valued at £750 million to run Birmingham and the new-build Featherstone 2 jail in nearby Wolverhampton.  

Prison officers threatened strike action. The then Justice Secretary Ken Clarke warned that he would deploy troops to keep order if prison officers went on strike.

Investment analysts JP Morgan noted at the time: "Clarke's determination to use the military to push through privatisation is perhaps evidence of the government's determination to take on public sector unions, which may be a positive sign for the outsourcing trend."

In a private meeting with financial analysts in May 2011, G4S's then UK chief executive David Taylor-Smith boasted: “We’re now bigger than the Scottish Prison Service and Northern Ireland Prison Service combined. So we’re starting to get proper scale now in the UK as a kind of a credible alternative to national bodies running prisons.” 

Seven years before the privatisation, HMP Birmingham got new workshops, educational facilities, a new healthcare centre, gymnasium, and an extra 450 prisoner places, thanks to a massive publicly-funded investment programme.

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