“Some of the worst conditions ever seen” says inspector of “neglected” Bedford jail

Damp cell. Image: HM Inspectorate of Prisons
Damp cell. Image: HM Inspectorate of Prisons

Nearly 250 years after John Howard published his book on prison reform, the jail in his home town of Bedford has been described as holding prisoners in some of the worst conditions inspectors have seen.

A damning report published today (Wednesday) reveals the scale of the problems at HMP Bedford that led HM Chief Inspector of Prisons to write to the Secretary of State for Justice in November to invoke an Urgent Notification.

In response, the Prison Service has said it will be “taking urgent action”, deploying extra frontline officers, improving living conditions, and ensuring offenders get greater access to education.

However, following an unannounced inspection in 2018, the prison inspectorate also invoked the ‘Urgent Notification’ protocol and six years on, history is repeating itself.

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

Filthy floors and serveries, overcrowded conditions in which most prisoners were held and cells with broken furniture and windows were among the criticisms in the report.

Some cells were damp and had problems with mould, and on days of heavy rain the segregation unit ran with sewage. The jail was also battling infestations with rats and cockroaches.

Cockroach competition. Image: HM Inspectorate of Prisons
Cockroach competition. Image: HM Inspectorate of Prisons

“Penning people in squalor”

Charlie Taylor, HM chief inspector of prisons, said: “Some of the accommodation in Bedford was the worst I have seen.

“The smell of mould in one cell was overpowering, with the walls damp to the touch, while the underground segregation unit, which held acutely mentally unwell men, was a disgrace.

“If our prisons are truly going to protect the public, then they must be able to play their part in supporting men and women to move on from offending.

“Penning people in squalor for 23 hours a day with no meaningful access to education, training or work, or to fresh air or exercise is not going to achieve that, as the levels of violence and self-harm at Bedford attest.”

Lack of support for vulnerable prisoners

The report shows that inspectors were particularly concerned about the serious deterioration in mental health services and the increase in levels of self-harm and “the fragility of the support for the most vulnerable prisoners”.

Levels of violence, particularly assaults on staff were among the highest in the country.

The inspection suggested that this was the result of the limited time that prisoners had out of cell to escape their terrible living conditions in the fresh air and with anything meaningful to occupy their time.

Inspectors also branded the applications and complaints systems “disastrous”, with prisoners finding it impossible to get questions answered or problems solved.

Concerningly, particularly given reports of direct racism by staff, discrimination incident reports were also poorly managed with 40 being replied to late and many failing to address the concerns raised.

Thirty percent of prisoners were released homeless, making it virtually impossible to break the cycle of mental health difficulties, drug taking, crime and imprisonment.

The governor of HMP Bedford, Ali Barker, has been in post since January 2023. The report said that she understood the scale of the problems, but inspectors did not think she was visible enough around the prison wings where conditions had deteriorated sharply since the last inspection.

Mr Taylor said: “While we left Bedford very concerned about the ongoing problems at the jail, there were many hardworking staff doing their best in difficult conditions. The governor and her team will need considerable support from the prison service to achieve what will be a difficult and lengthy transformation of a neglected prison.”

Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.), chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The photographs in this report have to be seen to be believed – mouldy cells, a damaged door, sandbags in the segregation unit, and even a table etched on the wall to count the number of times cockroaches have crawled into view.  

“These images are an utterly appalling indictment of the prison system today, and they should compel politicians on all sides to work constructively to ensure that no one is held in such terrible conditions ever again. 

“Sensible steps to reduce the number of people behind bars would ease pressure on jails such as Bedford, save lives, protect staff and reduce crime.” 

“A scandal, but this should not be a surprise to anyone”

Bedford and Kempston MP, Mohammad Yasin (Labour) described the situation as “a scandal” that he warned the Government about following the first Urgent Notification in 2018.

“Yet little to no action was taken and in November last year I was back in Parliament raising the same issues during an adjournment debate I had secured on the issue, after yet another Urgent Notification for Bedford Prison was issued,” he said.

“As I asked the Prisons Minister during the debate, who can leave those conditions a better person, or less likely to reoffend?

“Overcrowded, squalid and unsafe prisons will never help or allow people to turn their lives around and move on from a life of crime and hurting others. Bedford Prison is a Victorian jail in the middle of an urban area and is completely unfit for purpose.”

In response, the Prisons Minister told him that, “A wider-ranging full action plan will also be developed in the longer term to address all HMIP recommendations’.

“Well, the report is now here and it is damning,” said Mr Yasin.

“If the Prison is to remain open it’s clear that immediate action is required. I call on the Minister to fulfil his commitment and ensure that urgent works takes place to raise standards across Bedford prison and to begin repairing the physical site, both for the safety of staff and to give prisoners a real chance at rehabilitation.”

“Prison reform is not a vote winner”

Former Prison Chaplain at HMP Bedford, Rev Sharon Grennan-Thompson, told the Bedford Independent: “I’m so saddened to see that HMP Bedford is still struggling to provide a safe, rehabilitative environment.

“I left my role as Prison Chaplain eight years ago, and it seems that, despite many decent, hard-working governors and staff doing their best, the jail has not been able to move on from what was a difficult situation back then.

“My personal opinion is that national under-investment in prisons over years has made it an impossible job. There has also been a failure to tackle many root causes of crime, and of course, prison and sentencing reform is not a vote winner unless it is in a more and more retributive direction.

“Poverty, anger, hopelessness and lack of opportunity feed crime. An under-resourced, under-staffed prison cannot turn someone’s life around, and so the door continues to revolve, to everyone’s detriment.”

Commenting on the 2019 inspection, 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…this scathing inspection report shows that Bedford is beleaguered by many of the issues that plague our prison system today.”

A Prison Service Spokesperson said: “The findings of this inspection are unacceptable which is why we’re taking urgent action to address the concerns raised.

“This includes deploying extra frontline officers to reduce violence and improve safety, undertaking refurbishments to improve living conditions, and ensuring offenders get greater access to the education and skills they need to turn their backs on crime.”

Update: This article was updated on 14 February 2024 at 10:38 to include comment from Rev Sharon Grennan-Thompson

Keep Local news Alive in Bedfordshire