HMP Birmingham is a category B local prison serving courts across the West Midlands that we have heavily criticised in recent years. At the 2018 inspection, findings by Justice Inspectorates of Prisons an Urgent Notification to the Secretary of State was issued, seeking immediate improvements. At the subsequent Independent Review of Progress in 2019, it was reported that prison leaders had made progress against many recommendations, with significant work done to restore order to the prison.
In 2021, HMP Birmingham has made significant progress to restore order.
Historically, Birmingham has held around 1,500 prisoners, but at the time of the HMI Prisons scrutiny visit in January 2021 the capacity had been reduced to 977, with three of the older Victorian wings closed. Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said the COVID-19 pandemic had created significant challenges for leaders at Birmingham, and the prison had experienced three outbreaks.
“Leaders had made sure that there was effective communication with staff and prisoners throughout the period of restrictions, and they were visible on all wings, which contributed to a sense of order.
“Frontline staff were also visible when prisoners were unlocked, and we observed good relationships between staff and prisoners. Maintaining decent living conditions and providing a consistent, if limited, regime for all prisoners were clear priorities.”
Prisoners received 90 minutes a day out of cells.
It was encouraging, Mr Taylor added, “to see useful work to actively promote equality and diversity, something many establishments have neglected during this period.” Health care was reasonably good though prisoners waited too long to see a GP or dentist.
Inspectors also found rehabilitation and release planning work to be reasonable. Release planning was well organised. Prisoners could access through-the-gate support and the new ‘departure lounge’ for prisoners on their day of release was a promising initiative.
Around 90% of prisoners were released to sustainable accommodation, which was better than inspectors have seen at other local prisons.
Inspectors found some areas of concern. The ‘reverse cohorting arrangements’ –- designed to prevent new prisoners potentially transmitting COVID-19 to the main population – were weak. Prisoners who arrived up to seven days apart were placed in the same cell, and some social bubbles (where prisoners associated and exercised in groups) included prisoners who had just arrived mixing with those about to move into the main population. This increased the risk of outbreaks across the prison.
Inspectors saw some good work to promote safety, but this was undermined by the safety team’s failure to record accurately all acts of violence and self-harm. Incidents were reported and investigated, but at this stage some data was missing, limiting its value to managers in seeking to monitor trends or make improvements.
Ofsted inspectors also found that the provision of education was not good enough. The education provider had taken six months to deliver in-cell packs to prisoners and at the time of the visit provision was limited and badly organised.
Overall, however, Mr Taylor said:
“This is an encouraging report. Given Birmingham’s recent history, its continued provision of decent living conditions and a calm, well-ordered environment suggest improvements are being embedded. However, oversight of safety arrangements, practice in the reverse cohorting unit and education provision require some immediate attention.”