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Monday, 9 December, 2002, 11:02 GMT
Behind bars at one of Britain's packed prisons

More and more people are being sent to jail. Birmingham Prison is in the frontline of the overcrowding crisis. But what damage is the crisis doing? And what's the view from inside the cells?
In the gloomy reception corridor at Birmingham Prison, half a dozen newly enrolled inmates are languidly sprawled across the benches of a stark holding room.

They glower through the security glass at the passing activity, but with no discernable interest.

They seem impassive to what awaits, bored with the predictability of living under lock and key. Fear, if there is any, hides under a sneer of disdain for authority.

Yet, perversely, these are seen as the lucky ones.

Birmingham Prison, widely known as Winson Green after its neighbourhood, is in the frontline of the current prison overcrowding crisis.

Birmingham Prison
  • Built: 1849, serves courts in the West Midlands
  • Prisoners: mostly unsentenced and just sentenced; charged with range of crimes from murder down
  • Numbers: 920 inmates - 205 more than limit
  • Expansion: 50m programme to be completed Oct 03 inc new houseblocks, healthcare centre, workshop and gym

  • The jail population has increased by more than a third in 10 years, from 45,000 in 1992 to almost 73,000 today. On Monday, the Home Office said the prisoner tally could hit 110,000 by 2010. And it is local prisons such as this, which handle mostly unsentenced inmates, that are being squeezed the hardest.

    On an average day, 60 inmates pass out through Winson Green's gates, mostly for police interview or courts appearances around the West Midlands.

    A similar number will return to this neck of north-west Birmingham as the day goes on, but they won't all be the same faces.

    Such is the pressure on prison spaces in the West Midlands, many of those shipped out in the morning will have their bed reassigned during the day.

    Instead of returning to the familiar surroundings of Winson Green, a space has to be found elsewhere. Since the summer, the prison has been relying on police holding cells to mop up these extra inmates.

    Prison types
    Local prison: receives inmates directly from court, on remand or newly sentenced, eg. Birmingham Prison
    Training prison: where sentenced prisoners go on initial or later allocation
    Like health workers trying to find beds in overburdened hospitals, the authorities at Birmingham are constantly shuffling inmates between cells around the region.

    Spaces in the West Midlands are particularly tight. A couple of weeks ago some inmates were taken to Yorkshire, says Tony Price, one of the prison governors.

    "Then you've got to get them back to Birmingham for a court appearance at nine o'clock the next morning. It's putting incredible strain on the escort services."

    Despite Winson Green's terrible reputation - two years ago inspectors slammed it as "failing" and "very sick" - inmates would rather be here than in the limbo of police custody, where they are without the comforts and routines of a proper jail.

    Open in new window : Faces from inside
    Find out what staff and inmates think of it

    The average prisoner on release from Winson Green spends seven days at a stretch in a holding cell before coming back. A gap like that is enough to throw off course work that has been done to settle the inmate and establish a routine.

    And as courts continue to hand down harsh sentences, problems are stacking up. In October overcrowding contributed to a riot at Lincoln Prison. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, has cautioned prison numbers could hit an "unacceptable" 100,000 in 10 years.

    Chess board drawn on a chair
    Inmates spend long stretches in their cells
    The churn through Winson Green has accelerated so it now has the equivalent of a new population every six weeks.

    Deputy governor Ferdie Parker, says it's leading to "disaster". He worries the effects will lead prisoners to take their own lives.

    "The effects of overcrowding add uncertainty. Eighty per cent of inmates passing through the jail have some form of mental illness, but while they are out in police cells we can't reach them," says Mr Parker.

    "If they are in a downward spiral in depression, they can get beyond the point of no return by the time they get back here.

    There will come a point, soon, when we will just have to say we're full

    Ferdie Parker
    "We are seeing a rising tide of suicide and self-harm in prisons. If we lose a prisoner to suicide because of the rush, that would be a disaster to me."

    And he doesn't see much slack left in the system. Winson Green currently holds 920 inmates - 205 more than its recommended capacity. It was higher during the thick of its troubles two years ago, when it was the second most overcrowded jail, but the figure has been creeping up again in recent months.

    Prisoners have had to double up, with two beds in cells designed for one. There is a strain on resources - a shortage of work and education places, a lack of time spent out of cells to exercise and socialise.

    Ferdie Parker
    Ferdie Parker: 'It's very wearing'
    Yet when cell doors are unlocked the atmosphere seems more relaxed than the inspectors found in 2000, when Birmingham was black-listed for "appallingly low quality of regime" and intimidation of inmates at the hands of officers.

    "There will come a point, soon, when we will just have to say we're full. We are beginning to buckle already," says Mr Parker.

    The high levels of mental illness mean officers have to be released to accompany inmates to hospital, putting further pressure on the rest of the staff. Staff absence levels are also far above the national average.

    "It's very wearing. We are going full throttle all the time. Every self-harm incident is a shock for those who discover it. Everyone has their end point."

    See also:

    30 Oct 02 | England
    25 Oct 02 | England
    13 Sep 02 | Cracking Crime
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