Birmingham Prison in Winson Green is dogged by overcrowding and serious drugs problems, including packages being thrown over the walls to inmates, a report has revealed.
Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons said that HMP Birmingham, now run by private company G4S, had shown improvements in some areas and was “safer”.
But serious concerns were raised about the drugs problem, including high rates of positive tests, highlighting how many illegal substances were getting into the prison.
In just one three month period prior to the inspection 54 “throw over” packages had been intercepted by prison guards in the exercise yard, but many more will have got through.
In spite of this, no netting was installed to prevent it happening. G4S told the Birmingham Post that this was now being installed.
Overall 42 per cent of inmates said they felt unsafe, and figures showed there were 23 assaults and 11 fights each month.
Mr Hardwick said: “Birmingham prison has recently made some relatively simple but nonetheless important improvements but the prison also has a number of significant strategic challenges it needs to resolve. It is a cleaner, safer and more decent place. However, first night and vulnerable prisoner arrangements are significant exceptions to that overall picture.
“Two important areas of the prison – purposeful activity and resettlement – are weak and a determined strategic effort is required to improve them.”
HMP Birmingham was the first public sector prison to be taken over by a private company, and the inspectors found there had been progress in some areas.
The report said: “HMP Birmingham is in many ways a typical, inner-city local prison on a largely Victorian site. It holds the same sort of short-stay adult men with the wide range of needs and challenges that you would find in almost any local prison.
“What makes it untypical is that in October 2011, three months before this inspection, amid some controversy, it became the first public sector prison to transfer to the private sector. HMP Birmingham is now run by G4S.”
The inspectors said it was too early to judge if the transfer to a private company had been successful, but there were some signs of improvement.
These included the use of force to restrain inmates had “dropped significantly” since the last inspection, fewer inmates were put into seclusion and that overall the prison was “reasonably safe”.
But the inspectors found there were “important exceptions” to the steps forward, including weak strategies to tackle bullying inside.
Mr Hardwick said he had overheard prisoners bragging about how easy it was to get illegal substances past the guards: “There was a high rate of positive drug tests and as I walked past an exercise yard close to a road, prisoners joked how easy it was to throw drugs over the wall into the yard. This was indeed a regular occurrence.
“It was surprising that netting had not been put up to help prevent this, which I was advised could easily be done.”
Overcrowding is a big problem. It is supposed to hold 1,112 prisoners, but at the time of inspection there were 30 per cent more than this.
Mr Hardwick added: “Too few prisoners were engaged in useful activity. Success rates for literacy and numeracy – an acute need if prisoners are to resettle successfully, were very low. HMP Birmingham was lagging behind other prisons in the provision of work and other activity and the development of a challenging learning, work and skills strategy now needs to be a priority.”
Michael Spurr, Chief Executive Officer of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), said: “I am pleased that the Chief Inspector has acknowledged the improvements achieved at Birmingham during a difficult period of market testing.
"This is to the credit of the previous Governor, management team and staff. G4S has successfully managed the transition from the public sector and I am confident that the director and his team will rigorously address the issues raised in the report and drive forward sustained further improvement over the coming months.”
A G4S spokeswoman: “G4S welcomes the Chief Inspector of Prison’s report following his inspection of HMP Birmingham and we are delighted he has recognised that the prison is a ‘safer and more decent place’.
"Since G4S took over the management of HMP Birmingham last October we have worked hard to improve the security and living conditions for both prisoners and employees. Today’s report on progress made is a testament to the dedication, hard work and professionalism of our staff.
“We have made a start at implementing a new regime aimed at improving the rehabilitation of offenders. We will look at the recommendations within the report carefully and will continue to further improve the work, training and education available for prisoners.”
On the issue of overcrowding, G4S claim that the contract to manage HMP Birmingham was based upon a capacity of 1450 prisoners. The spokeswoman said: “We operate to that capacity, and are paid to ensure that those bed spaces are available.
“There is a mechanism in place that monitors how we achieve this capacity, to ensure that we do not place prisoners in unsuitable or overcrowded conditions, and there would be a loss of revenue for the company should we do so.”
She added: “Our current rate of positive testing for drugs is high, and has been a cause for concern. This is in many respects a problem that G4S have inherited, as there is much evidence that drugs have been regularly thrown over the wall onto exercise yards.
“G4S have invested a substantial amount of money to combat this issue, by installing additional netting and fencing. This work is in progress, and should be completed within the next six weeks.
“We are in the process of reviewing our strategy for the use of controlled medication to help prisoners who are withdrawing from drugs. This includes a review of the accommodation and our intervention strategy.”