Staff at one of Britain's largest prisons were found asleep or locked in offices during an inspection that uncovered "appalling" squalor and violence, a watchdog has said, as it emerged the government is taking over the privately-run jail.
In a scathing critique, Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke warned HMP Birmingham has "slipped into crisis" following a "dramatic deterioration" in the last 18 months.
The Ministry of Justice has now assumed control of the establishment from G4S for at least six months.
G4S welcomed the move, saying the prison, which it has managed since October 2011, faces "exceptional challenges".
The highly unusual intervention came as Mr Clarke warned that levels of violence were the highest for any local jail in the country, with some inmates saying they felt unsafe even behind locked cell doors - while perpetrators could act with "near impunity".
His assessment found blatant use of illegal substances went largely unchallenged amid a "looming lack of control". At one point, staff were said to have shrugged when inspectors pointed out that drugs were being smoked.
It also emerged that the chairman of the prison's Independent Monitoring Board had raised concerns in May that prisoners, rather than staff, appeared to be controlling many of the wings.
After an unannounced inspection of the prison concluded earlier this month, Mr Clarke triggered the "urgent notification" scheme to alert the Government to his findings.
In a letter to Justice Secretary David Gauke, the chief inspector said staff were ineffective in maintaining even basic standards.
"It was often difficult to find officers, although we did find some asleep during prisoner lock-up periods," he wrote. "On more than one occasion we found groups of staff who had locked themselves in their own offices.
"We were told this was to prevent them, when busy, from being distracted by prisoners - an explanation that was neither plausible nor acceptable."
Mr Clarke noted that many staff felt fearful and unsafe after a number of incidents, including an arson attack that destroyed nine vehicles in a car park.
HMP Birmingham - the scene of a major riot in 2016 - was rated "poor" in all four healthy prison tests.
Mr Clarke said he was "astounded" by the deterioration at the prison since it was last inspected in February 2017.
"There has clearly been an abject failure of contract management and delivery," he concluded.
His assessment detailed how:
- Violence had increased, including serious assaults that left prisoners and staff requiring hospital treatment
- Communal areas in most wings were "filthy", there were widespread problems with cockroaches and vermin, and blood and vomit was left uncleaned
- The smell of cannabis and other burning substances pervaded many areas, with Mr Clarke saying he felt "physically affected" by drugs in the atmosphere
- While some staff were clearly competent, relationships with inmates had deteriorated and there was a "general lack of order" on some wings
- In one bullying case a man had a poster with the message "Say No to BO" stuck on his door and was "hosed down" by other prisoners who put a fire hose through his observation panel.
In the wake of Mr Clarke's findings, the MoJ confirmed it had taken over the running of HMP Birmingham for an initial six-month period at no additional cost to the taxpayer.
Announcing the decision, Prisons Minister Rory Stewart said: "What we have seen at Birmingham is unacceptable and it has become clear that drastic action is required to bring about the improvements we require."
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said: "This shocking situation underlines the dangerous consequences of the ever greater privatisation of our justice system.
"HMP Birmingham was the first publicly-run prison to be transferred to the private sector. This should be a nail in the coffin for the flawed idea of prison privatisation. The Government must scrap its recently announced plans to build yet more private prisons."
Jerry Petherick, managing director of G4S Custody & Detention Services, said: "HMP Birmingham is an inner-city remand prison which faces exceptional challenges including increasingly high levels of prisoner violence towards staff and fellow prisoners.
"The well-being and safety of prisoners and prison staff is our key priority and we welcome the six month step-in and the opportunity to work with the Ministry of Justice to urgently address the issues faced at the prison."
Built in 1849, HMP Birmingham is a category B facility for adult male inmates and had a population of 1,269 at the end of last month.