Chronic overcrowding, staff shortages, and “legal highs” at Bedford Prison have been linked to an increased risk of self harm and volatility among prisoners, according to a new report.
After its annual inspection, the Independent Monitoring Board said officers are increasingly resorting to control and restraint techniques to manage difficult prisoners, leading to high levels of stress.
Inmates are spending longer locked in their cells with nothing to do under an emergency scheme brought in to manage staff shortages.
The report added prisoners also lack “purposeful activity”, and these deficits are “depressing and dangerously prevalent” in HMP Bedford.
During its inspection carried out in June and July, the IMB found a prevalence of “legal highs”, such as Spice, among prisoners is exacerbating the problems.
It also found the number of prisoners considered to be at risk of self harm, or suicide, has increased by almost 50 per cent from 2014-201, to 396 due to their living conditions.
The board are volunteers who have unrestricted access to Bedford Prison to monitor the humane and fair treatment of prisoners.
It found during the monitoring period, the prison was overcrowded by a factor of 50 per cent, for which it blames the Government for failing to fund a system which sees so many offenders getting long custodial sentences.
It added the chronic staff shortages are due to an imposed recruitment freeze but praised those employed there for their “resilience, professionalism and essential decency” when faced with difficult conditions and “unsustainable levels of unremitting stress”.
The report found despite the negative attitudes towards Victorian Prisons, the board finds Bedford’s location “convenient and helpful” for prisoners and their families, and staff.
The building could be improved with “reasonable investment, such as the repeatedly promised and delayed upgrade to the heating system and windows”.
A Prison Service spokesperson said: “As the report notes, the commitment of the governor and the resilience and professionalism of staff at HMP Bedford are to be commended.
“We take a zero tolerance approach to violence and drugs in prisons. We have a range of measures in place to tackle drugs, such as sniffer dogs, searches of prisoners’ cells and mandatory drugs tests. Additionally, prisoners who are violent towards our staff face investigation by the police and extra time added to their sentence.
“Prisons will always have safe staffing levels. We keep staffing levels under review and responded to recent pressures by recruiting 2,340 prison officers nationally over the last 12 months.”