More than 300 pages of “solicitors letters” were laced with drugs and sent to inmates during a prison’s Covid-19 lockdown. The letters, marked as being from inmates’ legal teams, were intercepted at HMP Birmingham in June. Staff’s efforts emerged in a report on standards since an inspector called the prison the worst he had ever seen. Now a watchdog hopes improvements during the virus will help reshape the prison’s future. HMP Birmingham’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) has been assessing progress for the 12 months since July 2019, when the government took over the site full time from private security firm G4S.
The switch followed a raft of serious complaints over the prison which painted a picture of severe squalor, chronic danger and acute drugs misuse. But the IMB’s annual report found “rising trends in standards”, and that in general, inmates’ experience had improved, with expectations “this upward trajectory will continue”. Instances of violence and drug use have fallen, and the board concedes it is related, yet only in part, to prisoners spending most of the day in cells during the enforcement of Covid-19 restrictions. Amid national lockdown, the prison experienced an influx of letters laced with psychoactive substances (PS). They were marked as Rule 39 solicitors letters – messages between inmates and legal counsel that by law cannot be read by prisons unless contraband is suspected.Staff did suspect and found 330 pages of drug-coated paper; a move that left the board “reassured the prison is diligent in tracking down illicit items”. The board added incidents of PS abuse were “much lower” than in recent years, and a body scanner was finally in place to detect drugs.