A damning report by the prison inspectorate has resulted in control of HMP Birmingham being returned to the Ministry of Justice from private security contractor G4S with immediate effect. Arguably, the nadir for Birmingham prison under G4S could be the now-infamous riots that took place in 2016, however the report also states that prison gangs are acting with "impunity", the living conditions are awful and drug use is widespread.
I'm a teacher in a state-run prison, and these findings surprised me. My students – serving prisoners – typically look upon private jails favourably. In a class this week we discussed events at Birmingham as I attempted to get a clearer picture of the contrasts and similarities between prisons in the public and private sector.
Steve, 44, is awaiting sentencing for his role in a drug conspiracy. Having pleaded guilty at the first opportunity, he is expecting a reduced sentence. However, as it will be his third conviction relating to the supply of drugs, he is anticipating upwards of six years. Having had experience of both state and private prisons, and facing the likelihood of serving time in both, I ask him what he sees as being the main differences between the two.
"If you asked a lot of the kids, they'd say they prefer the newer nicks because they've got better kit, newer gyms, that kind of shit," Steve says. "But what good is any of that stuff when you don’t feel safe? Difference for me is the screws, plain and simple. You'll get some right cockers in here, don’t get me wrong, but they’re at least half human, and even if it’s a total jobsworth you know he’s not going to give you a kicking for no reason. Different breed you get in the private prisons, though. Big problems with them being on the sniff, roiding [steroid abuse], proper anger management cases.
"What all this means is that when you get a funny fucker – say, someone setting fire to paper and chucking it off the landing – the screws on duty don’t have a clue how to respond so just pile in, trying to do the most damage they can. And this is the kind of thing that can turn the mood on the wing. Before you know it, you’ve got plans to riot, and fair enough I say. There’s ways and means of doing things, and these private screws don’t have the character or training to squash a bit of nonsense without making everything a hundred times worse."
Maxi, 28, is Steve's cellmate and part of the same drugs conspiracy. This is his tenth time in prison, but only his second drug-related offence. Having known Maxi on and off for some time, I ask him to talk about his experiences with prison officers in state prison versus their counterparts in private jails.
"Same as Steve mostly," he says. "But I'd say there's getting less and less of a difference. Back in the day you'd have these old blokes [for screws], bit like your dad really, and you’d know that as long as you didn’t push them too far there wouldn't be a problem. They’d even have a bit of banter if you took the piss out of them. Definitely now, though, there’s less of them and a lot more that’s similar to the kind you get in private jail. They [the government] made the conditions worse for us, then we behave worse. Same for the screws. No one decent wants to work as a screw, not anymore, so we end up getting the ones who couldn’t even get an interview five years ago."
I ask Maxi what he thinks will happen at Birmingham now that it's back under state control. "I reckon they can put that nick back to the government, but it's not going to make much difference really. When there's a shit vibe at a jail it takes time and money to change it, and that's time they ain't got and money that they ain't going to spend on us."
Paul, 19, has been returned to prison having broken the terms of his license within three days of being released. He has served four previous sentences, and like many younger offenders his prison experience has been largely through the private sector, which will often have dedicated units for young offenders. His face badly bruised from the failed robbery that saw him put back inside, I ask him what he thinks could be done to improve conditions in private prisons and hopefully avoid another Birmingham riot.
"Bro, it's standard flex what happened in Birm," Paul replies. "I've seen worse flips than that, just hasn't come out in public yet. Mad things, two or three a week, man running these prisons, ain't no way it's going back to how it was!"
I ask whether he would be in favour of all prisons being re-nationalised.
"No, bro! Old jail like this serve waste food and stink of shit. Actual bare shit, bro, pipes are 200 years old. At least in private jail you get clean walls and purer munch. Real, they should all go private!"
Marcus, 27, has spent the vast majority of the last decade inside for crimes ranging from assault and burglary to minor public order offences. He tells the group that he has experienced several riots of varying degrees of seriousness in this time, and I ask him whether they were handled differently in the private and state prisons.
"Yeah, I think the biggest thing is they shut it down better in here [state prison]," Marcus says. "Like, there just seems like there’s a plan on what to do. Know who’s involved in the kick-off, isolate them with your best screws. Other screws are getting everyone else in their cells at quick time. Don’t fucking smash anyone you don’t have to. It’s always seemed like the government prisons know when something’s cooking up too."
I ask Marcus to expand on this.
"One-hundred percent they've got better intelligence in government jail. Not just grasses, but more intelligent officers, man working behind the scenes. I reckon in private jail they don't have a fucking clue from hour to hour, make most of it up as they go along, and when they see something they don’t like, all they can do is go into fucking beast mode and hope for the best. To private prisons, all we are is profit. As long as that's the case, we'll keep on having shit like Birmingham over and over."