Prison

Prison

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Kicking Off… Why Prison Riots Happen

In the aftermath of Friday’s events at HMP Birmingham I wanted to share a few thoughts about prison riots and why they occur. The main reason for the delay has been the fact that I’ve spent so much time explaining many of the same things to journalists who are also trying to make sense of the situation.

HMP Birmingham: 'The Green'
In writing this post, I think it is important to make a distinction between prisoners who protest about poor conditions or mistreatment by refusing to return to their cells or by organising sit-downs or by going on the wire netting that is stretched between landings and those who riot with the intent of destroying the fabric of the prison or else attack staff or fellow inmates. The events in Birmingham on 16 December were, by any measure, a major riot. Had the rioters managed to reach the prison roof, as some tried, then it might have gone on far longer than 12 hours. Mercifully there were very few injuries and only one prisoner required hospital treatment. Staff on the wing could have been taken hostage. That they weren’t may also say something about the aims of the rioters.

Although I’ve previously blogged about the weasel words that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) uses to describe riots in our prisons – ‘disturbances’ or ‘incidents of concerted indiscipline’ (see blog post) – mass disorder on the scale seen at HMP Birmingham has actually been fairly rare, at least until recently. However, when they do happen, there is often a very considerable cost, both financial and human. Early estimates of repairing the damage to the fabric and security systems at Winson Green are already running into the millions of pounds for embattled G4S which holds the contract to run the prison.

Cold showers & riots?
Predictably, some sections of the media – especially the red top tabloids – have been peddling the misleading narrative that prisoners at The Green (as it is widely known in prison circles) went on the rampage because the showers were cold or due to a failure of the in-cell TV system. Neither claim is factually true as an explanation, although such issues can easily play a role in lighting the spark that sets off the powder keg. However, the mass media does have a tendency to try to attribute serious prison problems to seemingly minor or even silly causes – such as the death of an inmate’s pet hamster.

In reality, prison riots usually occur in very troubled prisons that have an extended history of poor management, as well as inmate discontent and frustration. It is rare that one single incident or decision by a governor leads directly to an explosion of rage by prisoners. There is almost always a whole series of issues and complaints that have gone unaddressed for weeks or even months.

There has been widespread speculation that the riot at HMP Birmingham was solely due to staff shortages. Having too few officers on wings definitely doesn’t help to diffuse tensions. If prisoners’ complaints and written applications are being ignored or it takes staff weeks or months to answer, then inevitably frustrations and a sense of grievance can flourish unchecked. When angry men feel that they are being ignored, some come to believe that only by smashing up the environment around them will their voices finally get heard. I think it is safe to say that the whole country is now aware of the situation.

Not such a warm welcome?
Of course, leaving prisoners locked up on their cells for 22 or 23 hours a day – due to staff shortages or lack of activities – can also play a major role in fuelling tensions. Some of the specific complaints made about the daily regime at Winson Green include the regular cancellation of exercise periods and access to the gym. Perhaps small issues in themselves, but they do add up over many weeks and months.

Very similar grievances sparked off the riot at HMP High Down back in 2011 when protesters described themselves as being ‘banged up like kippers’. When eleven of these prisoners were charged with the serious offence of prison mutiny and went on trial in 2014 with the prospect of an additional ten years on top of their sentences, the jury heard evidence from the governor of the appalling conditions at the prison and duly voted unanimously to acquit them all (see blog post). The verdict was a very serious humiliation for the then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. This case should be an important lesson for his successor to bear in mind as she continues to threaten dire retribution against the Birmingham prisoners.

In many of my recent media interviews I have also tried to draw attention to the high prevalence of mental illness among prisoners, much of which goes untreated and unaddressed in our dysfunctional prisons. Long days of cellular confinement tend to seriously exacerbate mental health problems as does a lack of opportunities for productive activity and association with others.

Justice Secretary Liz Truss' statement
HMP Birmingham has a troubled recent history. Just reading recent reports prepared by the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) and other official bodies such as HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) highlights many concerns over how the prison was functioning in the months running up to the latest incident (see the IMB report here). Questions also remain unanswered about why the MoJ and its ministers – Secretary of State Liz Truss and Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah – failed to react to the IMB report on HMP Birmingham delivered a few months earlier and at least ensure some urgent remedial action was instituted. In the event, it seems that neither did anything at all - a state of affairs that appears to have troubled even some Conservative back benchers.

The problems identified at The Green have now become common across much of the prison estate. Easily availability of drugs of all kind, particularly so-called new psychoactive substances (NPS), certainly plays a role in fuelling violence between prisoners, as well as unpredictable behaviour from some of those who use ‘Spice’ and ‘Mamba’. However, my own view is that the sheer poverty of daily existence at The Green and the frustrations of what sounds like one long lockdown probably played at least as great a role in the recent trouble as drugs did.

HMP Birmingham - aerial view
Even at the best of times, Cat-B local prisons (usually grim Victorian red brick piles in major cities) are highly volatile places. They receive prisoners straight from court – both on remand and convicted – as well as people on recall for breaching their licence conditions. Many of these men are still in the grip of addictions or living with serious mental health crises. Even those using prescribed medications for their medical conditions can find themselves deprived of these for days or weeks until they have been assessed by the prison healthcare team. It also often takes far too long to identify those newly arrived inmates who require a place in a secure hospital.

Some prisoners in a Cat-B local will be merely passing through or serving ridiculously short sentences of a few weeks or even days, during which nothing meaningful in terms of support for their drug habits or mental health conditions will be on offer. Others coming in from the dock will just be starting to come to terms with very long sentences that stretch out before them like a train track into a very dark tunnel. Many will be scared or disorientated and a lot will be very angry, at themselves and at other people. Some will self-harm and others will commit suicide. None of this makes for a very safe or predictable environment and those are just some of the reasons that Cat-B locals tend to be so troubled and potentially explosive.

HMP Ford in flames (Dec 2010)
In contrast, Cat-B and Cat-C ‘trainers’ (prisons that cater for more settled prisoners at different stages of their sentences) often appear to be much calmer and less prone to mass outbursts of violence or destruction. Of course, there are always exceptions to this. Even an open prison like HMP Ford can succumb to serious trouble, as at New Year’s Eve in 2010 when large parts of the prison went up in smoke when some prisoners rioted over alcohol testing. It’s worth noting, however, that on that occasion other prisoners tried to stop the rioters or at least tried to extinguish the fires.

And this is an important point. During most prison riots there is almost always a significant number of prisoners who aren’t involved. Some try to stay safe in their cells or hide from others who are intent on doing as much damage as possible. In fact, it can be a very dangerous environment on wings for those who don’t want to get involved. They run the risk of being branded collaborators or ‘screwboys’ who aren’t loyal to their fellow inmates.

There have also been other, much more serious prison riots than at Birmingham since the infamous episode at Manchester’s HMP Strangeways back in 1990. As recently as April 2009 HMP Ashwell in Rutland suffered such a catastrophic disturbance that whole wings had to be abandoned and the costs involved were so astronomical that they were never rebuilt. The whole complex eventually had to be abandoned and it is currently used as a film set for prison movies.

Prison riots can be terrifying
How the prison authorities behave in the aftermath of a serious riot is also very important. Damage to the security systems at The Green and the fact that an officer’s keys were seized by prisoners have led to full scale lockdown for nearly a week, even for those prisoners who were on other wings where there was no trouble.

Reports are coming out of these prisoners not being allowed out of their cells, of poor food, of delayed medication, of being denied access to payphones to call their families and of mail not being handed over. This is starting to appear to be a form of ‘collective punishment’ on those who weren’t involved in Friday’s riot and risks fuelling tensions among other inmates. Insiders are now pointing to signs of recent trouble among prisoners on C-wing, one of those areas unaffected by the rioting.

So far, over 500 of The Green’s 1,450 inmates have been transferred to other prisons. Some of these men have been literally carried onto secure vans, most have left without any of their personal possessions and may be taken to jails many miles away from their families just before Christmas. A few have even smeared themselves with human excrement (a ‘dirty protest’) in a bid to halt, or at least delay, their transfer. Upon arrival at other establishments – such as HMP Hull and Bullingdon (Oxfordshire) – there have been reports of continuing resistance and further minor disturbances. Almost all of these receiving prisons are themselves reported to be on a knife-edge and there is a very real risk that G4S is merely exporting its disgruntled prison population across the country, with the result that more trouble could follow.

It is a truth well known to both prisoners and staff alike that most prisons can only be run with the tacit cooperation and involvement of a majority of the inmates. Prisoners do many of the essential day-to-day tasks required for the running of any jail - from cleaning and working in the laundry to preparing and serving meals - and on a wing with just two or three officers there is no way to compel the obedience of 150 or more adult men. However, this truce can be fragile and the longer a lockdown is imposed on prisoners who didn’t participate in the riot, the more likely that they will withdraw their cooperation. G4S is currently playing with fire at The Green.

'Sweat boxes' waiting for transfers
I wish I could propose a quick fix for the underlying causes of riots like we have seen recently at HMP Lewes (October), HMP Bedford (November), HMP Moorland (November) and now at HMP Birmingham, but I really can’t. This prison crisis has been years in the making and no government – Labour, Coalition or Conservative – has had the courage to address the fact that the prison population in England and Wales has more than doubled since 1993 when it stood at around 40,000. Of course, budget cuts of £900m since 2011 and a cut in the number of frontline prison staff by 2,500 since 2013 alone have made a desperate situation far worse.

Stepping up the recruitment of more prison staff is a start, but in reality retention of new officers is extremely poor and, in any case, most of the 2,500 new frontline staff promised by Ms Truss will not be recruited, trained and deployed until much later in 2017 or even 2018. Meanwhile, the crisis is set to continue.

The most obvious solutions, such as cutting the prison population by reducing significantly the number of unconvicted prisoners held on remand (between 10,000-12,000 at any time), by speeding up the release of prisoners serving the now abolished Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) who are years over their minimum tariff and by reforming sentencing in our courts to eliminate the use of custody for non-payment of fines, as well as most petty or non-violent offences, do not seem to appeal to our political leaders. Neither do proposals to create secure care facilities for elderly or severe disabled offenders, both groups that place a severe strain on staff resources and prison healthcare, as well as on local hospitals.

All prisoners are categorised by dynamic risk. Arguably, those who are considered to present a ‘low risk’ of reoffending, shouldn’t even be held in custody. Keeping most short-sentenced, non-violent prisoners accommodated in Cat-D open prisons is also probably a waste of taxpayers’ money. Better to focus scarce resources on the containment and rehabilitation of those who actually do pose a continuing risk to the public. However, in order to push such reforms through, real political leadership will be required, especially at the MoJ. Unfortunately both Liz Truss and Sam Gyimah are lightweights, far out of their depth. They need to go. Now.

3 comments:

  1. As always, a great piece.

    The fundamental problem with our prison population is it's sheer size - something you acknowledge in your post. Prisons simply can't cope with the numbers they are expected to house. All too often non-violent 'safe' offenders are thrown into these dilapidated Cat-B locals when there is really no need.

    If prisons were reserved for only dangerous offenders who pose a immediate risk to the general public the population would halve overnight. This, of course, would improve conditions immeasurably and return a safe staff to inmate ratio and finally resolve overcrowding as men will not be sharing with one or sometimes two others in a cell designed for one.

    My fear is that if the population were to be reduced so would budgets and so we'd have the same problems but at least affecting fewer inmates.

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  2. Hi Alex, I am currently studying at the University. I came across your blogs from researching about prisons and your story seems to help a lot. I'm currently doing a project at my university in London, and I have to design a "Survival Kit" that would help someone with their first time in prison. I know certain things are not allowed in, but it would be helpful if you can tell me anything that helped you when you were inside, such as different items that kept you going and kept you busy and helped made your experience easier for the first time.

    Thanks R

    (if anyone else would want share what they were given before going in or what loved ones gave to help them, it would be much help, thanks)

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  3. Hello Alex

    A very intelligently insightful and informative blog. More power to your elbow sir.

    Next week I have the possibility of prison and was wondering what the situation is regarding taking books with me? I have read conflicting statements and would like to take as many as possible.

    Thank-you for your time

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