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Using failure to drive transformational change

Following an inspection of a previously failing prison, Birmingham, Charlie Taylor considers how an impressive governor used an Urgent Notification as a catalyst to transform it.

When inspectors visited HMP Birmingham in August 2018 they were expecting it to be a difficult inspection; there had recently been a riot in the prison that had led to widespread damage and a decision to return it to the public sector. What they found was a jail that had all but collapsed. In his introduction to the report, my predecessor, Peter Clarke wrote:

We found an institution that was fundamentally unsafe, where many prisoners and staff lived and worked in fear, where drug taking was barely concealed, delinquency was rife and where individuals could behave badly with near impunity.
Peter Clarke, Former Chief Inspector of Prisons

He went on to describe poorly led staff who had neither the confidence or the competence to get back control.

Many prisoners were living in squalor, little was being done to adequately occupy individuals and the prison was failing in its responsibility to protect the public by preparing prisoners adequately for release. The prison was in an appalling state.
Peter Clarke, Former Chief Inspector of Prisons

Photographs in the report show broken windows, piles of rubbish and dreadful conditions in cramped cells.

The Inspectorate had no choice by to issue an Urgent Notification and soon after that a new governor was recruited.

The Inspectorate did a light touch visit during the pandemic and reported on some good progress, but when we returned for a full inspection in January 2023, we found a prison that had been transformed. Our overall scores improved from ones (inadequate) in each of our four healthy prison tests, to three for safety (reasonably good), three for respect, one for purposeful activity and two (not sufficiently good) for rehabilitation and release planning. A remarkable five point increase, a scale of change I have only seen once before – at Feltham A, which increased by six points – in my time as Chief Inspector.

The jail was clean, well maintained, organised, calm and much safer. Prisoners no longer had to look over their shoulders in fear of assault and the supply of drugs had been significantly reduced. An officer who had been at the jail for many years said, looking back, he did not know how he had coped when the prison was at its worst. It was only his sense of duty and his loyalty to his colleagues that had stopped him from walking out. Now he said he looked forward to coming to work and was enjoying his job again.

What did it take to turn things round so spectacularly? Most important was the arrival of an outstanding new governor, Paul Newton in August 2018. When I talked to him during the inspection, he told me that things were much worse than he had expected. In every operation of the prison he looked into, he discovered more problems.

In these circumstances, the danger is to try to change too much too quickly. Rather than try to fix everything at once, he focused on three main things: improving the fabric of the building; making sure that the regime operated efficiently and critically; increasing the confidence and competence of his staff team.

The Urgent Notification led to more funding being released that meant he could begin to refurbish some of the worst parts of the prison. This included replacing the many broken windows and beginning a huge clean-up operation, removing the piles of rubbish accumulated around the jail and making sure that landings, kitchens and staircases were clean. His main focus, however, was on improving the morale of his staff and making sure they had the skills to do the job effectively – a governor, no matter how good, cannot deliver success without a committed leadership team and high-quality officers to lead the delivery of the regime on the wings. He had inherited many excellent officers, but a lack of leadership had meant standards had slipped. In 2018, inspectors found officers hiding away in wing offices from the chaos on the wing, where they felt powerless to take on the open drug dealing and violence. Officers’ cars had even been set on fire in the car park and many were frightened to challenge some prisoners because they feared the consequences.

A communal area in Birmingham prison filled with rubbish
Communal area 2018
A communal
Communal area 2023
Gully 2018
Gully 2023

The governor set clear standards for what he expected from his staff and most importantly he made sure that he and his leadership team were there to offer support. One officer told me that the governor had a habit of suddenly appearing on the wing, checking that process were being followed and things were running smoothly. The governor also realised that he had a problem with staff corruption which was one source of the large amounts of drugs that flowed into the jail. His team, which included some excellent, loyal officers, increased staff searches, made greater use of dogs and worked with the local police to prevent contraband being thrown over the wall.

The governor took advantage of the pandemic lockdowns, in which regimes were severely restricted, to give the prison the chance to reset. Leaders could focus on improving staff confidence when there were only small numbers of prisoners unlocked at a time; alongside this, the drug supply dried up and levels of violence fell. The reputation of the prison also began to change among prisoners, meaning they were no longer arriving in the jail hyper-vigilant and prepared to fight as soon as they felt threatened.

The Birmingham prison we inspected earlier this year was by no means perfect; the regime was very poor for unemployed prisoners (some of whom were only getting out of their cells for an unacceptable one hour a day), drugs continued to find their way in and many prisoners continued to live doubled-up in cells designed for one. But overall, the transformation was remarkable: relationships between staff and prisoners were generally good, the place was spotlessly clean, the regime, limited as it was, ran on time and A, B and C wings were undergoing an extensive refurbishment at the time of the inspection.

Most of all, this turnaround shows the importance of great leadership. The extra money was important and the building works had made a big difference, but it was the relentless and uncompromising focus on standards by the governor that was at the heart of this success story. He and his leadership team refused to accept second-best or any complacency; they understood at a fundamental level that unless staff feel safe and supported, they will not be able to do their jobs. Outstanding leadership was also the critical factor in the recovery of other jails that have been on the receiving end of terrible inspections. Pia Sinha, at Liverpool, Emily Martin at Feltham A and PJ Butler at Bedford also drove through transformation of those prisons. It remains a challenge for the prison service to make sure that it continues to seek out and promote the brightest and the best leaders to become the next generation of outstanding governors.

As I walked around HMP Birmingham during this inspection, meeting many easy going, well-behaved Brummies, it was hard to believe that only five years ago men in the same corridors had been caught up in violence and drug dealing that had almost destroyed the jail.

Read the inspection report: HMP Birmingham