Rampant rat infestation, overcrowding, drug-fuelled debt and violence at HMP Bedford

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HMP Bedford: 'Rats on wing’ sign
HMP Bedford: 'Rats on wing’ sign

The HM Inspectorate of Prisons has published a damning report today that says Bedford Prison has suffered an “inexorable decline” in treatment and conditions, despite two years of internal prison service efforts to improve the jail.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, found no credible plans by the prison or HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPSS) to address Bedford Prison’s “dangerous shortcomings.”

HMP Bedford:B wing laundry blocked sluice with dirty floor
HMP Bedford:B wing laundry blocked sluice with dirty floor

In its introduction, the report states: ‘The letter to the Secretary of State and the report itself give a stark description of decline and decay, and speak for themselves. They tell a story of a public institution that at present fulfils none of the basic objectives of imprisonment.’

Following an unannounced inspection in 2018, Mr Clarke took the rare step of invoking the ‘Urgent Notification’ protocol, requiring the Secretary of State for Justice to respond publicly with an improvement action plan.

The report details:

  • A rampant rat infestation, ineffective sanctions for violent prisoners, drug-fuelled debt and violence and over-crowded cells.
  • A fifth of prisoners said they developed a drug problem while in HMP Bedford.
  • One segregated prisoner caught and killed a number of rats in his cell during the inspection.
  • Nearly 40% of men were locked up during the working day; many milled around aimlessly when let out of cells. ‘The prison lacked a culture of working or learning.
  • Too many prisoners left the prison no more qualified or skilled for work than on entry.
  • Self-harm had increased substantially and there had been five self-inflicted deaths since the previous inspection in 2016.
  • One vulnerable prisoner was only able to shower five times in 2018.
  • One cell had a bed but no other furniture, television or kettle. The window was broken and the toilet did not flush. There was builder’s rubble on the floor from repairs which had not yet been completed.
  • Some vulnerable prisoners were regularly locked behind their door for 23 hours a day.
HMP Bedford:Occupied room with broken bunk bed on A wing
HMP Bedford: Occupied room with broken bunk bed on A wing

The inspection also found that assaults on staff at HMP Bedford were a daily occurrence.

Violent prisoners faced few effective sanctions, yet use of force by staff, including baton use, had risen significantly and was “exceptionally high.”

Nearly half of the prisoners felt unsafe on their first night at HMP Bedford and “the lack of order and control on some wings was a major concern.”

Many cells were cramped and overcrowded. Among vulnerable prisoners, one amputee said he had only been able to shower five times in 2018.

Mr Clarke said: “This inspection found that the prison has continued on a seemingly inexorable decline that is evident through the results of the four inspections carried out since 2009.

“It used to have a reputation as a good local prison, and the collapse in standards is as sad as it is inexcusable.”

Bedford is now assessed as ‘poor’ in the areas of safety, respect and purposeful activity and ‘not sufficiently good’ in rehabilitation and release planning.

Figures on the Howard League for Penal Reform website show that at the end of last month, the prison could accommodate only 266 men but was being asked to look after 353.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Shocking conditions in the former jail in Bedford were what prompted the great reformer John Howard to dedicate his life to improving prisons.

“More than 200 years have passed, but the photographs in this scathing inspection report show that Bedford is beleaguered by many of the issues that plague our prison system today.

“At least six men have lost their lives through suicide in the last three years. There was a riot. Special measures have been in place for two years. And still this overburdened, under-resourced, rat-infested jail is being forced to look after more men than it is designed to hold.”

Read: Howard League says prison reform more important now than ever before

Former Chaplain at Bedford Prison, Reverend Sharon Grenham-Thompson, said: “I’m terribly sad and disheartened, although not altogether surprised, to read this report.

“When I joined the prison staff as chaplain in 2011, HMP Bedford was deemed a ‘high performing’ establishment. That did not last.

“I left the staff in 2016, partly due to my frustration at the difficulties I faced providing professional care and meaningful interventions in such trying circumstances.

“I do know that there remain dedicated staff at all levels who have made great efforts to retain standards.

“However, my personal opinion is that political and practical support has been too little, too late and that the interests of prisoners and staff might now be best served if HMP Bedford were to be closed.”

HMPPS had made the prison subject to a Performance Improvement Plan in September 2016, but by May 2018 it was judged that there had been insufficient progress and the prison was placed in what HMPPS terms ‘special measures.’

However, Mr Clarke said: “The lack of progress to date and the poor quality of the action plans led me to the inevitable conclusion that I could not be confident in the prison’s capacity for change and improvement, even when under special measures.”

Peter Clarke HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
Peter Clarke HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

“The use of the UN Protocol is not something that I take lightly. I am required to have ‘significant concerns with regard to the treatment and conditions of those detained’.

“Sadly, in the case of HMP Bedford, that threshold was easily exceeded… I should also point out the abject failure over many years to respond to recommendations for improvement made by this Inspectorate…

“For the sake of both prisoners and staff at HMP Bedford, I hope that on this occasion the use of the UN Protocol will lead to the concerns of HM Inspectorate of Prisons being taken seriously at all levels of HMPPS.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, said: “Bedford has faced significant challenges since the 2016 riot and we knew that its performance was not acceptable.

“That’s why we had already reduced prisoner numbers, set out an improvement plan and provided extra, external support.

“We have not ignored previous recommendations, but pressures on the prison meant that progress had been difficult.

“Since the inspection, we have reduced prisoner numbers further, improved cleanliness and strengthened the management team to provide greater support to staff who the Chief Inspector acknowledges were committed but inexperienced.

“We have also appointed a new, more experienced Governor to spearhead this work and accelerate improvements.”

Prisons Minister Rory Stewart has also added his thoughts and guidance on the report, saying: “I take the Inspectorate’s findings very seriously.

“I visited Bedford prison last week to follow up on the recommendations in the report. I’m glad to say that there has been significant progress at Bedford to make it safer and more decent. But we have more to do.

“Increased security is in place to help reduce drug use, and violence in turn, and inexperienced staff are now being better supported and given extra training to ensure the prison runs effectively.

HMP Bedford: files waiting to be processed in the offender management unit
HMP Bedford: files waiting to be processed in the offender management unit

“We have appointed a highly experienced and effective new Governor. And I am confident that he and his senior management team and the excellent prison officers will ensure that the prison’s turnaround will continue.”

Guidance includes: 

  • HMP Bedford has appointed a new Governor, PJ Butler who has previously been Governor of HMP Stafford and HMPYOI Brinsford, and has 29 years of experience in the Prison Service.
  • Additional senior managers have been appointed including a new Deputy Governor, Head of Residential and Services, Urgent Notification Project Manager, and an Operational Support/Mentor.
  • To develop the confidence of more junior staff, officers have been given a mentor specially trained to help with the problems entry level officers can face.
  • The prison service has transferred a total of 56 offenders out of the prison, on top of the 20 moved out since May, and the number of Category B prisoners have been reduced to 42 to ease pressure on staff and allow the refurbishment of one wing.
  • The establishment has increased staff searching, enhanced perimeter patrols and fixed more windows to strengthen security.
  • All prisoners testing positive for illicit substances will be automatically referred to physiological care services by healthcare staff.
  • The showers on B and D Wings have been refurbished, the flooring on A Wing has been replaced and there has been further work done on C Wing.
  • The prison has become a national pilot site for the Clean and Decent Project which has seen experts come into the establishment to teach prisoners the best way of keeping their cells tidy, reducing the prevalence of vermin and improving conditions. A and B wings now have cleaning officers and cleaning schedules, and the number of visits by the pest control contractor has been tripled.

“Courts must be held to account for the decisions they make, because the continued imposition of short sentences and the overuse of remand are causing problems that spill out of prisons,” concluded Frances Cook of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

“Exactly as John Howard found all those years ago, prisons like Bedford infect local communities.”