“Urgent action needed” as inspectors find squalid conditions, spiralling self-harm and violence at Bedford Prison

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Bedford prison
HMP Bedford

HM Inspector of Prisons says that conditions at HMP Bedford have deteriorated so sharply that they’ve had to issue an urgent notification for improvement

During an an inspection on 9 November 2023, inspectors found Bedford Prison to be overcrowded with some inmates housed in mouldy cells, with broken windows, and graffiti and the prison was infested with both cockroaches and rats.

Self-harm has also increased, while access to healthcare has been disrupted.

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said that many of the issues found at Bedford, a category B reception prison, “reflect wider problems across the [prison] estate.”

Bedford also had the highest levels of violent assaults against staff in adult male prisons in England and Wales, even higher than at HMP Woodhill, which received an urgent notification in August.

Read: Searches carried out and Bedford Prison on lockdown after “gun smuggled in”

The amount of force used by staff was also very high, and inspectors saw examples of inappropriate and excessive force alongside unprofessional behaviour such as swearing at prisoners.

While there had been recent improvements in oversight and all incidents were now reviewed by managers, previous poor practices had not been identified.

In a statement to the media, Mr Taylor said: “This latest inspection is a damning indictment of the state of prisons … There were not enough staff, and prisoners were held in overcrowded and squalid conditions with very high rates of violence and self-harm.

“The inexperienced staff team were failing to deal with low-level behaviour and we found examples of excessive use of force and abuse of prisoners. Staff, prisoners and managers also told inspectors they had witnessed racism.

“Many prisoners were locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day and even the minority who were in education or training would frequently find it cancelled because of staffing pressures.

“There had also been, almost unbelievably, an escape by a prisoner supposedly under constant supervision.”

Read: HMP Bedford prisoner escapes on bicycle – but captured two hours later

Crowded conditions

Inspectors also found that about three-quarters of prisoners lived in overcrowded conditions, with little relief from the confines of their cells. Most reported having fewer than two hours unlocked each day.

Some prisoners were housed in mouldy cells, with broken windows, and graffiti and the prison was infested with both cockroaches and rats.

Education, employment and training that would have allowed men time out of their cells were frequently cancelled.

Further evidence of the poor conditions in which men were being held was the levels of self-harm, which had risen by 84% since the last inspection.

There has also been a significant disruption to healthcare due to the introduction of a new contract which has led to gaps in patients receiving medication.

The service offered by the mental health team was found to be poor and did not meet the needs of the population.

An equality manager role has also been unfilled for a year, which has led to prisoners, staff and managers reporting racist incidents.

Mr Taylor added, “Urgent action is needed to improve conditions at Bedford.

“Reception prisons are already, by their nature, risky establishments to run, with a high churn of prisoners including new arrivals who are particularly vulnerable when they are struggling with drug or alcohol withdrawal or the shock of arriving in jail.

“It is very concerning that this is the third urgent notification for a reception prison that I have issued, and the fifth overall in the last year.”

In his letter to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) notifying them of the issues, Mr Taylor said: ‘There were many staff and leaders doing their best at Bedford but some of the problems we found were symptomatic of systemic issues within the reception prison system.

“There will need to be a coordinated and sustained effort from national as well as local leaders to effect meaningful change at the prison.’

He added that the prison has “consistently failed to provide good outcomes for prisoners”.

In response to the report, Prisons Minister Edward Argar said: “The findings of this inspection are unacceptable which is why we are taking immediate action to address the concerns raised.

“This includes deploying extra staff to enhance safety and we will shortly publish an action plan to set out what further measures we’re implementing to drive the improvement that needs to be made.

“Across the estate, we are boosting officer numbers – with almost 1,500 more employed over the last year – and have increased starting salaries to more than £30,000 which is helping to improve retention.

“We are also pressing ahead with our plans to deliver the biggest prison expansion since the Victoria era by investing £4 billion to build 20,000 new places.”

The Secretary of State has 28 days to respond with a plan outlining what action will be taken to resolve urgent and severe issues. However, The MOJ highlighted to us the actions they have taken prior to and after receiving the report from HM Inspector of Prison’s report.

These include

  • A new Head of Reducing Reoffending has recently been appointed to help drive improvements to purposeful activity access.
  • A new Head of Education, Skills and Work has now been appointed and will be supported to reshape provision and improve attendance.
  • Regional support has been deployed, including extra staff, to improve the prison’s security and safety and improve the delivery of the regime to enable prisons to attend education and work.
  • The Governor has also enacted a bi-weekly decency review of prison conditions to assess where improvements can be made.
  • A new task force mobilised to make repairs to the prison estate; funding applications for larger repairs will be made on a case-by-case basis.
  • The Prison Governor will urgently start a programme of consultation with prisoners from different ethnic groups to enable a prison action plan to address discrimination concerns.
  • The prison has also completed the recruitment of a new diversity manager. A second diversity and inclusion post will be appointed to accelerate improvement on inclusion.

In 2017, the MOJ also set up the Urgent Notification system to make sure that immediate action could be taken to rectify serious issues identified by inspectors.

This is triggered when the Chief Inspector writes to the Secretary of State for Justice following a prison inspection.

The MOJ also confirmed that all recent incidents where the use of force was engaged at HMP Bedford will be “reviewed as a matter of urgency to assess the appropriateness of the action”.

They also said that additional oversight will also be put in place by the Governor and other senior leaders to make sure that the use of force is only deployed where necessary and appropriate.