Birmingham IMB pleased with staff efforts despite significant challenges

Overall HMP Birmingham’s Independent Monitoring Board is impressed with the way staff respond to and support the most difficult individuals in Society, said IMB chairman Rodger Lawrence. There is much excellent work being delivered on a daily basis. However, prison officers regularly face the challenge of drugs smuggled into the establishment and their work is made harder by the high rate of staff sickness.

Increasingly difficult behaviour by prisoners, often relating to use of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) concerns the prison’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB). In its annual report, the IMB, who act as the eyes and ears of the general public within prisons, said New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), including what is known as ‘mamba’, continue to impact on all aspects of prison life and a solution to the problem is urgently required. The disturbing effects of widespread use of life-threatening NPS provide a significant challenge to the prison. “This stretches the resources of the establishment as well as those of the emergency and medical services,” said Mr Lawrence.

In the national context of increasing violence in prisons, partly due to NPS, HMP Birmingham has developed innovative strategies to improve safety. The role of prisoner violence reduction representatives has proved to be crucial to reducing violence and building better lines of communication between prisoners and staff. Also the democratically elected prison council gives prisoners a ‘voice’ and promotes accountability and responsibility. The report concludes that the success of these strategies has had a positive impact on the life of the prison and the safety of both prisoners and staff.

The report highlights staff shortages as a major issue for the prison, impacting on morale, wellbeing and efficiency. “The increasingly difficult behaviour of individual prisoners, coupled with staff resource constraints give the Board cause for concern but despite this, and a difficult operating environment, HMP Birmingham continues to develop and improve,” said Mr Lawrence.

These pressures are unsustainable, claim the Report, and seriously undermine the good work the prison is undertaking with rehabilitation and care. “Illicit NPS affects all wings, involves intimidation and bullying and creates a climate of fear amongst many prisoners. “

“The senior management team and prison staff work relentlessly to overcome and prevent these NPS and related difficulties but the problem is too great for the prison alone to manage. Lack of staffing disrupts prison life which can foster violence and antisocial behaviour and the report stresses that sufficient staff need to be found to ensure that normal prison life is not disrupted to a critical extent,” said Mr Lawrence.

The Report states that the prison does not always have the capacity to run the full regime when an unexpected issue arises which requires deploying staff away from their regular duties. “These competing priorities, along with continuing levels of staff sickness and vacancies, impact adversely on the prison regime“, said Mr Lawrence.

The prison continues to provide a safe environment for the majority of those in its care. However, this cannot be guaranteed for all, claimed the Report.

In summary the Report said that the prison, on the whole, provides a good service to those in its care and is committed to continuous improvement.

Every prison in England and Wales has a volunteer IMB attached to it and among its duties is to produce an annual report which is sent to the Ministry of Justice. In this year’s report the IMB at HMP Birmingham has requested a response from Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah asking what effective action the Government is taking or is planning to take to counter the NPS issue.

Also highlighted in the Report is the lack of sufficient designated accommodation for sex offenders and vulnerable prisoners which is becoming an increasing problem. The IMB has asked the minister to ensure that the available spaces in prison reflect the current and predicted prison population.