Shabana Mahmood attacks Government failures leading up to HMP Birmingham riot

Shabana Mahmood today criticised the Government for its mismanagement of prisons that partly lead to the riot at HMP Birmingham – Winson Green on Friday 16 December.

Disorder began in Birmingham when a prison officer was ‘rushed’ by inmates around 9am and is believed to have involved up 600 inmates. The rioters took over four wings, started fires and gained access to medical supplies. One prisoner was taken to hospital with a fractured jaw and broken eye socket and the Birmingham Mail reported that an inmate had been stabbed twice in the neck in an act of gangland revenge. Riot teams restored order just after 10:30pm that night.

The riot comes following a series of serious prison incidents across the country since May. In May five prison officers and a prisoner were reportedly taken hostage at HMP Highpoint across two days. A prisoner was stabbed to death in HMP Pentonville on 19 October 2016 and two further prisoners were injured in an incident which the Prison Governors Association reportedly called “no massive surprise”. On 29 October, an incident at HMP Lewes in East Sussex required a national response unit and on 6 November, around 200 inmates rampaged through Bedford prison.

The riot also has occurred on the back of a series of concerning statistics on prison safety. Ministry of Justice (MoJ) statistics show that in the 12 months to September 2016 there were 324 deaths in prison, an increase of 21% compared to the same period of the previous year. In the 12 months to June 2016 there were 23,775 assault incidents, an increase of 34% from the same period of the previous year. Of these, 3,134 were serious assaults, up 26% from the previous year. 

The deterioration in prison safety has not been entirely unexpected in the wake of Government cuts to prison funding and staff. Officer numbers having fallen from about 25,000 to 18,000 since 2010. The number of prisoners has risen slightly over the same period.

In 2014 the Howard League for Penal Reform argued that rising assaults on staff and prisoners in prison are a consequence of a “dangerous gamble” with public safety. They said, ‘in recent years, the government has taken a big gamble with public safety: cutting prison budgets without cutting prison numbers’.

Shabana raised this today to the Rt Hon Liz Truss MP, Secretary of State for Justice, in the House of Commons.

Shabana said:

“For those of us who have been following the crisis in our prisons, nothing that happened in Winson Green in my constituency came as a shock. The Independent Monitoring Board report on HMP Birmingham found that staff resource constraints gave cause for concern and that there was a lack of capacity to run the full prison regime. What action did the Secretary of State take when the report was published, will this action or lack of action be part of the investigation that she has now promised, and will she tell us whether there are other things that she knows about that she has yet failed to act upon?”

The Secretary of State in response offered to have a discussion with Shabana about HMP Birmingham but did not properly answer her question, saying:

‘These are issues we have across the prison estate, staff retention, issues of psychoactive substances. The prisons minister has a daily meeting looking at stability and making sure we are providing every governor, regardless of whether in the public or private sector, the support they need”.

Shabana has now tabled written Parliamentary Questions to try to force the Secretary of State to address the matters at hand.