Life on the inside at 'hell hole' Birmingham Prison

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Media caption,

Wendy says her husband, a former inmate at Birmingham Prison, was frightened of dying there

People who work at and visit HMP Birmingham say the experience on the inside is one of fear, bullying and intimidation, with one person describing it as a "hell hole".

Inspectors say the jail is in crisis; so bad that the government has had to take over its running from a private firm that had been in charge since 2011.

A picture of squalor and danger has been painted by inspectors, but for those who work and live there the fear is so much greater.

"He was frightened he was going to get killed," said the spouse of one inmate.

The woman, identified as Wendy on the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme on Monday, said her husband "ended up behind his door for about three months".

She said HMP Birmingham was "just a hell hole to be honest".

"He couldn't go out of his cell because he was fearful for his life."

She also said nurses were not bringing him medication as they were scared of going on to the wing.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
HMP Birmingham has been described as a hell hole

A former inmate, who wished to remain anonymous, told the BBC he too rarely came out of his cell through fear.

He served four weeks at the prison between 21 May and 20 June and said: "The drug-taking is a revolving door."

He said he had seen inmates amuse themselves by giving drugs to addicts before beating them up once high.

The experiences are consistent with that described by both Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke - who said it was the worst prison he had ever seen - and the prison's Independent Monitoring Board (IMB).

In a letter to the government, Mr Clarke wrote about a "disturbing" case of a "bullied", troubled prisoner with personal hygiene problems, "soaked" with water from a fire hose which inmates had pointed through the observation panel in his cell door.

He also cited vomit, blood and rat droppings on the floor of some areas of the jail.

Image caption,
"The worst prison I've ever been to," said Peter Clarke

IMB correspondence to prisons minister Rory Stewart in May said there were "cockroaches ever present".

Among individual episodes it referenced was the case of an attacked prisoner whose flow of blood was stemmed using another inmate's mattress.

Former prison officer Paul Perry, who started at the jail in 2003, said staff were so stretched at times that someone could be "digging a tunnel and you wouldn't know".

He also highlighted readily-available drugs, suggesting the contraband was "flying in" so much there was no need for smuggling.

Of inmates' experience, he said: "It was like a Friday night out for them all really. They had the pool tables, they had their hooch and you could smell the gear on the wings."

Mr Perry, who quit in 2012, alleged some staff were complicit in the smuggling of mobile phones, with payments of £500 a time.

"The G4S pay structure encouraged corruption, I think, really."

Image caption,
Stuart Weddell worked at the prison for more than 20 years

Stuart Weddell worked at the jail from 1995 until October 2017, seeing it run by both the government and, latterly, private firm G4S.

The 52-year-old said when he began working at the prison there would be 20 officers and a manager on a wing containing about 120 inmates.

But by the time he left, he said, the number of officers had been cut back to 10, with sometimes as few as two on in a morning and two in an evening.

Prisoners, he said, would pick up on the toll the cutbacks were taking on staff and began to act like they had the upper hand, testing employees.

Image source, @snappersk
Image caption,
Members of the specialist Tornado squad were called to a riot at HMP Birmingham in 2016

With reference to 2016's riot, he said: "We knew something was coming. It was brewing. I don't think the riot was planned by them that day but they took an opportunity."

He said prisoners could almost create no-go areas on some wings where officers felt they could not go safely on their own.

Of the 350 staff whose contracts were transferred when G4S took over in 2011, he estimates about 70 remain.

The IMB said: "The relentless attrition of long serving, capable officers, replaced by new officers who are not being mentored closely, results in discipline being enforced inconsistently, leading to physical danger for officers who try to hold the line."

Mr Weddell said his time as an employee had affected his health.

Stress began to build up and he was taken to hospital in an ambulance a few times from 2012 with symptoms similar to a stroke and a heart attack.

"I'm a 6ft 4in, 17-stone bloke who has been reduced to sitting alone for hours in my bedroom, unable to go out.

"I would have to deal with prisoners' mental health but when it came to me, I had no idea how to deal with it."

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