BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 20: A general view of Birmingham Prison in Winson Green, which has been taken over by the Ministry of Justice on August 20, 2018 in Birmingham, England. Birmingham Prison, formerly Winson Green Prison, has been taken over by the government's Ministry of Justice after inspectors said it had fallen into a "state of crisis". Extra staff and a new governor are to be brought in to takeover from private firm G4S. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Prisons minister Rory Stewart said HMP Birmingham would not be handed back to G4S 'until we consider it is safe to do so' © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

A private prison that was taken back under state control during an emergency intervention this summer was an “exceptionally violent” dystopia in which inmates high on drugs wandered around like zombies in “a war zone”, inspectors found.

HMP Birmingham, which was run by security contractor G4S, had been struggling to maintain order for some time, but an unannounced visit by the prison watchdog in July and August found conditions so bad that inspectors triggered an urgent notification to the Ministry of Justice. Ministers immediately imposed a new regime under public management.

The report based on the inspection that prompted this action was published on Tuesday and describes an atmosphere of chaos in which inmates flouted rules without challenge. Staff were “anxious and fearful” as they went about their duties, while frightened, vulnerable prisoners “self-isolated” in locked cells.

Peter Clarke, chief inspector of prisons, said that although managers at Birmingham prison had sought to improve conditions following a riot in 2016, his inspection two years later found the jail plunged into even greater disorder.

“Far from recovering, the prison had deteriorated dramatically and was in an appalling state,” he said. “Against all four of our healthy prison tests — safety, respect, purposeful activity and rehabilitation and release planning — we assessed outcomes as poor, our lowest assessment. This is only the second time we have made such judgments. Conditions at Birmingham were among the worst we have seen in recent years.”

The report found prisoners openly using and trafficking drugs, while some staff “were ambivalent and accepting of such behaviour, and failed to respond to this overt drug misuse”. On one occasion, an officer was said to have “shrugged and laughed” when inspectors questioned the open drug use. A prisoner described K-wing as “a war zone, inmates walking around like zombies, high on spice [a psychoactive substance].”

Commenting on the report, Michael Spurr, chief executive of the prisons and probation service, said that G4S’s action on violence and drug use had been “too slow and ultimately insufficient” following the 2016 riot.

“That is why we took decisive action to step in and take control of the prison . . . good progress is being made,” he said. “The prison is safer, cleaner, calmer and more ordered. But there is more to do and we will continue to work closely with G4S to ensure these improvements endure.”

Rory Stewart, prisons minister, added that the government had conducted a “full and thorough investigation” into the situation at Birmingham. “We will keep a close eye on progress to ensure Birmingham returns to being a place of stability and reform, and we won’t hand the prison back [to G4S] until we consider it is safe to do so,” he said.

HMP Birmingham is an unusually large jail, built on the Victorian model, with a capacity of up to 1,450 adult men. It has a high turnover of short-stay prisoners. Prison campaigners have suggested that the difficulties of running big institutions should cause ministers to re-consider plans to build two more prisons on a similar scale.

Responding to the report, G4S said the wellbeing and safety of prisoners and prison staff was its “key priority”, and that it would continue to work with the Ministry of Justice to “urgently address” the problems at the jail.

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