Calls to shut down section of Bedford Prison likened to a ‘dungeon’

Striking prison staff pictured last month
Striking prison staff pictured last month

The segregation unit at Bedford Prison has been likened to a dungeon which should be closed, according to the prisons Independent Monitoring Board annual report.

The report highlights the difficulties in managing the 150-year-old Victorian prison with a high turnover of inmates, chronic lack of investment over many years and the impact of losing large numbers of experienced staff.

In particular the report focuses on conditions in the segregation unit where ‘the toilets frequently block, there has been a consistent infestation of cockroaches and a plague of

rats’.

The report states: “Each year we have commented on the deplorable conditions in the segregation unit. We now believe that it can no longer be considered a decent and humane place

to hold prisoners and recommend that it should be closed and relocated.

“The unit is simply appalling. It is a dungeon. These are not appropriate conditions in which to detain prisoners in the 21st century.”

Although acknowledging considerable attempts made to improve the prison, the report says the rate of progress is too slow and that there remain problems around increasing

violence, poor living conditions, low levels of engagement in educational initiatives and disinterest in constructive preparation for release.

The availability of drugs within Bedford Prison continues to be a problem, and the board estimates that between a third and half of all prisoners are taking drugs at any one time. And although drug

treatment services are valued by prisoners, the issue of drugs getting into the prison is not improving.

The report adds: “The majority of drugs come in over the wall, which is remarkably easy in a town centre prison.

“Whilst acknowledging the focus placed by the prison on addressing the problem, the report also points out that a capital investment in new window grilles required to

help prevent the supply of drugs has not been financed despite being highlighted by the board in 2017 and requested by the prison.”

Violence at the prison continues to be a significant issue, despite the implementation of a violence reduction strategy. The number of incidents between June 2017 and May 2018 almost doubled.

The report notes that there has been little attempt to involve prisoners themselves in the prevention and management of violence. ‘This seems odd given they would seem to have as great a vested

interest as anyone in making the prison a safer place,’ the report says.

Since the Bedford Prison riots of November 2016, a recruitment drive for new officers has restored staffing levels to the benchmark level of 110 set by the prison service.

However, there is an experience gap, which is evident in day-to-day operation and handling difficult situations.

Staff and prisoner relationships are seen, generally, as positive, and the report highlighted the capable leadership of the prison governor, Helen Clayton-Hoar, who was also praised for her work

on diversity and equality within the prison. The work carried out by prison officers on a daily basis in often difficult situations and poor conditions was also noted.

The board has identified many areas for development at the prison, including improved mental health services, investment in measures to prevent drugs coming into the prison, officer training

requirements, and preparing prisoners for release.

Kevin Whiteside, chairman of the IMB, said: “What we are seeing is the challenge of managing a prison that is past its sell by date. Staff have left in droves over the past few years and although they have

now been replaced you cannot just turn on the tap of experience. Added to this are the particular difficulties of high turnover local prisons, which perform poorly across the country. There is no

doubt about the determination to improve, but the obstacles are formidable.”

The report follows the announcement last week of an action plan issued by the The Justice Secretary to stabilise HMP Bedford following an Urgent Notification by the prisons inspectorate.