Urgent improvement needed at Bedford Prison as inspectors find violence, squalid conditions and spiralling self-harm

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Inspection also found racism, rats and cockroaches

Bedford Prison needs to make urgent improvements after an inspection found high rates of violence, squalid conditions and spiralling self-harm.

Charlie Taylor, HM chief inspector of prisons, called the inspection a “damning indictment”, adding “many of the issues we found at Bedford reflect wider problems across the estate”.

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He said: "There were not enough staff, and prisoners were held in overcrowded and squalid conditions with very high rates of violence and self-harm.

Bedford Prison. Picture: Tony MargiocchiBedford Prison. Picture: Tony Margiocchi
Bedford Prison. Picture: Tony Margiocchi

“The inexperienced staff team were failing to deal with low-level behaviour and we found examples of excessive use of force and abuse of prisoners. "Staff, prisoners and managers also told inspectors they had witnessed racism.

"Many prisoners were locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day and even the minority who were in education or training would frequently find it cancelled because of staffing pressures.

"There had also been, almost unbelievably, an escape by a prisoner supposedly under constant supervision.”

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Inspectors, who visited the prison on November 9, also reported Bedford had the highest levels of violent assaults against staff in adult male prisons in England and Wales, even higher than at HMP Woodhill, which received an urgent notification in August. Bedford becomes the fifth prison to receive an urgent notification in the past 12 months.

The amount of force used by staff was also very high, and inspectors saw examples of inappropriate and excessive force alongside unprofessional behaviour such as swearing at prisoners. While there had been recent improvements in oversight and all incidents were now reviewed by managers, previous poor practice had not been identified.

Around three quarters of prisoners lived in overcrowded conditions, with little relief from the confines of their cells as most reported having fewer than two hours unlocked each day.

Some prisoners were housed in mouldy cells, with broken windows, and graffiti and the prison was infested with both cockroaches and rats. Education, employment and training that would have allowed men time out of their cells were frequently cancelled.

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“Further evidence of the poor conditions in which men were being held was the levels of self-harm, which had risen by 84% since the last inspection.

Other key areas were also in a state of disarray, with significant disruption to healthcare following the introduction of a new contract resulting in gaps in patients receiving medication. The service offered by the mental health team was poor and did not meet the needs of the population.

Other shortfalls included the post of equality manager, which had been unfilled for a year. Worryingly, prisoners, staff and managers reported witnessing racism.

Mr Taylor added: “Urgent action is needed to improve conditions at Bedford. Reception prisons are already, by their nature, risky establishments to run, with a high churn of prisoners including new arrivals who are particularly vulnerable when they are struggling with drug or alcohol withdrawal or the shock of arriving in jail. It is very concerning that this is the third urgent notification for a reception prison that I have issued, and the fifth overall in the last year.”

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Andrea Coomber, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Racism. Violence. Self-harm. Rats. Cockroaches. This is a devastating report, and it means that Bedford joins Exeter and Bristol on the list of prisons that have received two urgent notifications.

“These jails share chronic problems of overcrowding and staff shortages, and the fact that they have not recovered, in spite of government action plans and promises of intervention and resources, speaks volumes about the state of the system as a whole.

“Exactly 250 years ago, John Howard visited Bedford Prison and was so horrified by the conditions that he devoted the rest of his life to reform. It is scandalous that we are having the same conversation today.”

Prisons Minister Edward Argar said: “The findings of this inspection are unacceptable which is why we are taking immediate action to address the concerns raised. This includes deploying extra staff to enhance safety and we will shortly publish an action plan to set out what further measures we’re implementing to drive the improvement that needs to be made.

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“Across the estate we are boosting officer numbers – with almost 1,500 more employed over the last year – and have increased starting salaries to more than £30,000 which is helping to improve retention. We are also pressing ahead with our plans to deliver the biggest prison expansion since the Victoria era by investing £4 billion to build 20,000 new places.”