Shine A Light

Coroner: prisoner got ‘sub-optimal care’ at G4S Oakwood Prison

  • • For almost an hour after Steve Ham was found unresponsive, G4S guards failed to call an ambulance
  • • Panic, inexperience, understaffing and lack of transparency exposed at UK's flagship private prison
  • • “An excellent model for the future of the Prison Service,” said justice minister Chris Grayling when Oakwood opened
Clare Sambrook
30 June 2014

Steve Ham died, aged 54, at HMP Oakwood, run by G4S

In the early hours of Thursday 6 February 2013, in his cell at Oakwood Prison, Edward Ham, known to friends and family as Steve, rang the emergency bell. He told officers he had chest pains. The time was 3.29 am.

Guards at the Birmingham jail, which is run for profit by security company G4S, monitored Ham, but failed to call a doctor.

On checking Ham at 4.52 am, G4S officer Anita Duggal “knew something was wrong because there was no response from him.”

She told the inquest into Ham’s death at Stafford Coroner's Court last week: “I went in his cell after getting approval from my manager to see if there was a pulse but there wasn’t.”

Even though all staff were trained in first-aid it took 12 minutes before anybody attempted CPR. It was 53 minutes before an ambulance was called.

“They all thought one of them had called an ambulance when in fact none of them had,” paramedic Neil Weaver said in a statement read out at the inquest.

Prison officer Sarah Hollyhead told the court: “It was my belief that there was a defibrillator available but it was locked away.”

She said: “We were given demonstrations on defibrillators but were not allowed to test them out.”

The inquest heard that the two private prison officers had less than two years’ experience between them. Both officers accepted that they had panicked. One was too fearful to enter Ham’s cell.

When paramedics arrived at 6.20 am, almost three hours after Ham had complained of chest pains, it was immediately apparent to them that he was dead. Steve Ham was 54 years old.

Last week South Staffordshire coroner Andrew Haigh concluded that Ham had died of ischemic heart disease. The cause of death was “natural causes in a man who received sub-optimal care”. The coroner said he would make a report regarding staffing levels at the jail.

HMP Oakwood is run by G4S, the self-styled “world’s leading security company” that is currently under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office for inflating fees on public contracts.


HMP Oakwood, Birmingham (image: G4S)

Under what’s known as a “manage and maintain” contract, over 15 years G4S is due to get £349 million of public money for running Oakwood. (That’s according to a Ministry of Justice Freedom of Information response — the reference is 82754, June 2013).

When the prison opened two years ago, minister of justice Chris Grayling, a former PR man, told Parliament: “We have a very good model for prison development in Oakwood… To my mind, it is an excellent model for the future of the Prison Service.” [Hansard, 5 February 2013]

G4S declared Oakwood's ambition to be, within five years, “the leading prison in the world”. The prison would be “‘restorative’ in the widest sense of the word,” said G4S. And here’s how:

“Prisoners and staff will be encouraged to repair individual or group harm as soon as possible and at the lowest level.
 Staff will contribute to reducing re-offending by acting pro-socially and modelling socially acceptable and desirable traits.”


Since April 2012, when the first prisoners moved in (before the builders had moved out), G4S has failed to deliver the basics.

In July last year even the Ministry of Justice expressed “serious concern” over Oakwood, granting the prison its lowest possible rating. The Howard League for Penal Reform called that a “damning indictment” of for-profit companies’ involvement in justice.

In August, the Oakwood Independent Monitoring Board reported that:

  • • A very high level of staff had little or no prison experience, and high rates of sickness left too few staff for front-line duties
  • • Cell furniture was made of cheap fibre-board that was easy to break up into weapons
  • • The stairwells, out of sight of CCTV cameras, were perfect for assaults
  • • Hooch, drugs and mobile phones were plentiful; it was easy to throw contraband into the grounds, there being only one perimeter fence instead of the usual two
  • • Self-harm was a worry — several prisoners had gone over the landing railings; there were no nets 
  • (You can access the PDF here).

In October HM Inspectorate of Prisons (reporting on their unannounced visit in June) found those faults and more. Well over a third of inmates were locked up during the working day. Prisoners found it was easier to get drugs than soap. Levels of self-harm were high.

“Many staff were passive and compliant, almost to the point of collusion,” said Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick, “and there was clear evidence of staff failing to tackle delinquency or abusive behaviour.”

He went on: 

The inexperience of staff was everywhere evident and systems to support routine services were creaky, if they existed at all . . . Against all four healthy prison tests: safety, respect, activity and resettlement, the outcomes inspectors observed were either insufficient or poor.

In January this year, G4S and their Ministry of Justice handlers tried to pass off serious disturbances at the prison as “an incident of concerted indiscipline”. G4S insisted that only 15 to 20 prisoners had been involved.

But a member of the emergency 'Tornado team' brought in to quash the disturbance tells a different story. He told BBC’s Radio 4’s investigative programme, The Report, that many more prisoners had been involved. And they had taken over an entire wing of the jail.

“Wires had been strung as tripwires at leg level and at chest and neck level as well, to try and prevent us from moving in an orderly fashion down the wing and sort of break us as we went through,” said the Tornado Team officer. 

“I would sum it up as a full-scale prison riot and we were very lucky that it only took place on one unit and didn’t spread.”

Chris Grayling's exemplar of private sector efficiency has leaned heavily upon publicly funded police and ambulance emergency services.

In the year before the riot, 128 emergency calls were made from the prison to Staffordshire police, according to information obtained by the Wolverhampton Express & Star under the Freedom of Information Act.

Last year Oakwood staff called an ambulance 358 times — more than twice as much as any comparable jail, the BBC revealed.

In the days after Steve Ham's death, the Prisons Ombudsman’s investigator visited Oakwood to try to establish what had happened. In accordance with normal procedure the investigator issued notices to staff and prisoners inviting anyone with information to contact the investigator.

Nobody came forward.

That’s HMP Oakwood, the blueprint for a privatised future. By G4S, “Securing your World”.



Note: Quotations from witnesses’ evidence are taken from Wolverhampton Express & Star court reports, and an account supplied by No5 Chambers; barrister Ian Brownhill represented two members of Ham’s family at the inquest.

A Report by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman Nigel Newcomen CBE: Investigation into the death of a man in February 2013 at HMP Oakwood, completed August 2013, published 1 July 2014, PDF here.

Liked this piece? Please donate to OurKingdom here to help keep us producing independent journalism. Thank you.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData