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20 August 2018, 13:32 | Updated: 20 August 2018, 13:56
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is stepping in to take over the running of HMP Birmingham after officials decided the private contractor G4S couldn't cope with the out-of-control prison.
It comes after a damning critique was issued by the prison watchdog warning that the Birmingham jail had "slipped into crisis" after its latest inspection uncovered "appalling" squalor and violence.
In a letter to Justice Secretary David Gauke, Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke noted that many staff felt fearful and unsafe after a number of violent incidents, including an arson attack that destroyed nine vehicles in the car park.
He wrote: "It was often difficult to find officers, although we did find some asleep during prisoner lock-up periods.
"On more than one occasion we found groups of staff who had locked themselves in their own offices.
"We were told this was to prevent them, when busy, from being distracted by prisoners - an explanation that was neither plausible nor acceptable."
Mr Clarke said he was "astounded" by the deterioration of the prison since it was last inspected in February 2017 and he concluded: "There has clearly been an abject failure of contract management and delivery."
The MoJ said there were "serious concerns over safety, security and decency," and it will take over running of the jail for an initial six-month period.
Officials say the action is justified under the terms of the MoJ's contract with G4S, because of their failure to run the prison safely, representing a breach of contract.
The government insists there will be no additional cost to the taxpayer.
Under the contract G4S is liable for any additional costs where there has been a forced "step-in."
G4S has welcomed the move.
The notorious prison which was the scene of rioting in 2016 has been issued multiple improvement notices this year.
In March, one notice related to concerns about high levels of violence, low levels of activity and cleanliness.
Indeed most recent figures show that Birmingham prison had the largest volume of assault incidents of all prisons in the 12 months to July 2018 with a total of 1,434.
In July, the prison was graded "poor" in all four categories; on safety, respect, activity and resettlement.
The urgent notification notice was the first issued for a prison run by a private company and it requires the government to formulate an action plan within 28 days to improve the prison.
Today's measures include:
- Putting in place a new governor to lead the prison, which Sky News understands will be Paul Newton, the former governor of Swaleside prison. He'll also have a new senior management team.
- Allocating experienced HMPPS officers to bolster existing staffing at the prison. An initial 30 extra officers will be deployed.
- Reducing the prison's capacity by 300 places while improvement action is under way.
- The six-month government-run period may be extended if ministers are not satisfied that sufficient progress has been made.
Prisons Minister Rory Stewart said: "What we have seen at Birmingham is unacceptable and it has become clear that drastic action is required to bring about the improvements we require.
"This step-in means that we can provide additional resources to the prison while insulating the taxpayer from the inevitable cost this entails.
"We have good, privately-run prisons across the country and while Birmingham faces its own particular set of challenges, I am absolutely clear that it must start to live up to the standards seen elsewhere."
Jerry Petherick, managing director of G4S's custody & detention services, said: "HMP Birmingham is an inner-city remand prison which faces exceptional challenges including increasingly high levels of prisoner violence towards staff and fellow prisoners.
"The well-being and safety of prisoners and prison staff is our key priority and we welcome the six month step-in and the opportunity to work with the Ministry of Justice to urgently address the issues faced at the prison."
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said the situation was a consequence of privatisation in the justice system.
He said: "HMP Birmingham was the first publicly-run prison to be transferred to the private sector. This should be a nail in the coffin for the flawed idea of prison privatisation. The Government must scrap its recently announced plans to build yet more private prisons."