Conditions at Bedford Prison have suffered an ‘inexorable decline’ despite two years of efforts to improve the Victorian jail, according to a scatching report.
Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, found no credible plans by the prison or HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPSS) to address Bedford’s “dangerous shortcomings.”
So bad were the findings of an inspection in 2018 that 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 scale of the violence, squalor and lack of control is set out in the full report on the unannounced inspection in August and September 2018, published today (January 22).
Only one comparable prison, Birmingham, had higher overall rates of violence. Bedford had the highest rate of assaults on staff, a daily occurrence. Violent prisoners faced few effective sanctions.
Use of force by staff, including baton use, had risen significantly and was “exceptionally high.”
Many prisoners felt unsafe, including 49% on their first night.
Pest control work had failed to eradicate significant rat infestation. One notice on a door (see pictures at Appendix V of the report), said: “PLEASE ENSURE DOORS REMAIN SHUT TO PREVENT RATS ENTERING THE WING!!!”
Conditions in the segregation unit were appalling. One segregated prisoner caught and killed a number of rats in his cell during the inspection.
A committed but “extremely inexperienced” staff group were trying to control a population with many young men and “the lack of order and control on some wings was a major concern.
Self-harm had increased substantially and there had been five self-inflicted deaths since the previous inspection in 2016.
Drugs fuelled debt and violence. Almost half of prisoners surveyed said it was easy to get illicit drugs, and a fifth said that they had developed a drug problem while in Bedford. One officer said: “If it’s just cannabis, it’s a good day.”
Nearly 40% of men were locked up during the working day and many milled around aimlessly when they were let out of cells. “Too many prisoners left the prison no more qualified or skilled for work than on entry.”
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 was now assessed as ‘poor’ in the areas of safety, respect and purposeful activity and ‘not sufficiently good’ in rehabilitation and release planning.
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.”
Mr Clarke added: “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 said:“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.
“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.
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.
“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. Exactly as John Howard found all those years ago, prisons like Bedford infect local communities.”