Mohammed Rahman, lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University, offers theoretical and observational thoughts on the recent HMP Birmingham unrest.

Prison unrest in England and Wales is nothing new.  In the past 12 months there have been several cases of disorder with riot damages costing millions of pounds.  A prominent case was the 2016 HMP Birmingham riots.

Built in 1849, HMP Birmingham is a category B Victorian local prison, which has a holding capacity of 1450 adult remand and sentenced male prisoners.  Notable former inmates include Great Train Robber – Charlie Wilson, and serial killer – Fred West, who committed suicide in his cell before he could be brought to trial.  Of note, it is also the first UK prison to be transferred from the public sector to private, as the security company G4S took over management in 2011.

The build-up of the 2016 riots in HMP Birmingham centred on the frustration of the prison condition.  Cited factors included: low staff numbers, poor healthcare and inadequate nutrition.  So too, on Friday 16 December 2016, HMP Birmingham endured 12 hours of rioting that resulted in the prison service requesting help from the ‘Tornado Team’ – a specialist riot squad who are trained to diffuse violent confrontations.

The disturbances that took place are what penologists would consider to be the ‘orthodox account of the crisis’, which is the well-known “common-sensical analysis underlying most mass media reports of problems in the penal system” (Cavadino et al. 2013: 10).  However, it is the overlooked ‘radical pluralist’ account of penal crisis that deserves mass attention.  This paradigm argues that a non-materialistic, economic and political understanding is needed for a deeper focus of a dire penal system.  Cavadino et al. (2013) argue the ideological ‘crisis of legitimacy’ to be the overarching issue, and highlight the inability of the UK penal system to legitimate itself with various agents: (public, politicians and commentators), with penal staff (prison staff and probation officers), and other penal subjects (inmates and probationers).

Indeed, the absence of ‘legitimacy’ invariably means the absence of ‘visibility’, as commentators have widely considered openness and transparency to cause damage to legitimacy.  Put simply, ‘if knowledge itself is power’, then the system is in risk of losing power and control over information.

In recent times we have seen exposes of the stark realities of UK penal institutions that are illustrated and narrated by ex-penal staff, who are often frustrated with the lack of legitimacy and visibility (see ‘BBC1 Panorama’).  Although these exposes uncover the orthodox positioning of the penal crisis, they are crucial for novel information and spark public discussions through various mediums of the absent realities.  For instance, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter often become hosts for most criminological discussions.  Over the years as an academic, I have observed this to be the case, and on many occasions I have partaken in such discussions with all walks of life.  Seldom have I instigated such dialogues.  However, my live coverage of a new case of unrest in HMP Birmingham prompted widespread thoughts and opinions of the ongoing penal crisis.

On Sunday 2 September, I was informed at 18:00 of disorder in one of the wings at HMP Birmingham.  I immediately turned to news sources, but there was no commentary.  In order to verify what I was told, I decided to drive to HMP Birmingham.  At approximately 19:00, I parked up adjacent to the main entrance of the prison and was informed through another source that the disturbances were ongoing and started shortly after 15:00.  For the next four hours, I observed the scene, and after noticing no media presence, I decided to post a series of live tweets through my Twitter account.  These tweets are still available on my account, and some of them are videos and still images of tornado teams and ambulances entering the delivery gate.

Twitter image

Twitter image @crimoelogy

Based on my observations, the first few media outlets arrived at the scene at around 22:00.  By then the unrest was ongoing for seven hours, and through the power of Twitter, some of my pictures were used for ‘breaking news’ bulletins in various print and online news outlets.  I was overwhelmed with all of the notifications, and decided to end my observations at 23:09.  Some of my live updates attracted the attention of academics, practitioners, public members and also a prisoner who is serving an Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence.  The IPP prisoner, who goes by the Twitter handle @ServingIpp responded to one of my tweets with:

Wondering how many prisoners were injured by tornado staff who wasn’t involved in the riot – Twitter: @ServingIpp

Essentially, the tweet above alludes to the fact that prison unrest is no different to social unrest, as bystanders are also prone to physical risk.  A notable non-prison example of this is the death of Ian Tomlinson, who was struck by a police officer during the G-20 summit protests in 2009 (Pearse and Weaver, 2013).  In relation to HMP Birmingham, @ServingIpp’s sentiments were echoed by other Twitter users, with some questioning official accounts of injuries sustained by prison inmates and staff.

In short, the sad reality is that we will never know the full details of the events that unfolded in HMP Birmingham.  Indeed, it would be challenging for the system to achieve legitimacy with its difficult audiences.  However, for as long as we are removed from the system’s legitimate and visible state, we are reduced to speculate a phenomenon that is neglected, misunderstood, harmful and in serious crisis.

Mohammed Rahman is a lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University, to learn more about Criminology view our courses.

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