HMP Birmingham: inmates ‘walking around like zombies’ high on Spice’

HMP Birmingham: inmates ‘walking around like zombies’ high on Spice’

HMP Birmingham: 'Still reeling' from 2016 riot

Drug taking at the troubled HMP Birmingham was ‘barely concealed’ and prisoners could behave badly with ‘near impunity’, inspectors found. The Chief Inspector of Prison, Peter Clarke has taken the unprecedented step to demand the government seize control of one of Britain’s largest privately run prisons.

The report by the Chief Inspector of Prison quoted one prisoner describing ‘a war zone, inmates walking around like zombies, high on Spice’. According to the report, the prison has the highest levels of violence of any local prison in the country, staff work in fear and many inmates live in squalor with little being done to adequately prepare them for release. ‘The challenges facing this prison are huge,’ said Clarke. ‘Managers and staff need support if they are to turn the establishment around.’

HMP Birmingham, known locally as Winsom Green, was last inspected in February 2017, shortly after the mass disturbances of December 2016. The riot which was reported to have involved over 500 inmates was said to be the product of months of building dissatisfaction among inmates over poor healthcare, staff shortages and disorganised deployment of staff to the point where ‘prisoners were in effect policing themselves much of the time’ according to the 2017 report.

‘Following the riot in 2016, Birmingham faced significant operational challenges, particularly on violence and drug use,’ commented Michael Spurr, chief executive of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. ‘We required action from G4S and – as the inspection notes – progress was too slow and ultimately insufficient. That is why we took decisive action to step-in and take control of the prison.’

An unannounced inspection took place between 30 July and 9 August 2019 led by Chief Inspector Peter Clarke. Mr Clarke stated in his Urgent Notification letter to the Secretary of State that he had no confidence in the ability of the prison to make improvements: ‘I am not surprised to find that of the 70 recommendations we made at our last inspection, only 14 had been achieved’ with none of the four main recommendations being met.

The report noted  that there were no formal or structured means of confronting violent prisoners and, as result, those perpetuating violence could do so with near impunity; attacks on staff left them feeling unsafe to work, this included an arson attack during the week of the inspection destroying nine staff vehicles in the secure car park; control in the prison was ‘tenuous’, officers were difficult to find and failed to account for where prisoners were; many cells were overcrowded and dirty; and the prison frequently released men who were assessed as posing a high risk of harm to others.

In response to the report, the Secretary of State has published an action plan which sets out a framework for progress for improvements to start. Mr Clarke describes the plan as being ‘helpful’ but stresses that it is crucial that there ought to be transparent conversations about the state of the prison and accountability among those implementing the plan.


Inspectors found:

  • The prison was ‘exceptionally violent and fundamentally unsafe’. Many frightened and vulnerable prisoners ‘self-isolated’ in locked cells but could not escape the bullying and intimidation as urine and faeces were thrown through their door panels;
  • Drug taking was ‘barely concealed, delinquency was rife and individuals could behave badly with near impunity’. Wings often felt ‘chaotic and rowdy’ and the report quoted one prisoner describing “a war zone, inmates walking around like zombies, high on Spice” – the synthetic drug;
  • Control in the prison was ‘tenuous’ with ‘staff often not knowing where prisoners were’;
  • Many prisoners lived in ‘squalor’ and ‘little was done to adequately occupy them, leaving many simply to mill around on wings’;
  • The prison was failing in its responsibility to protect the public by ‘preparing prisoners adequately for release, including hundreds of sex offenders’.