A year after the chief inspector of prisons triggered emergency action over the “dangerous” conditions at HMP Bedford, “insufficient” progress has been made in improving the situation for inmates and staff, a new report has revealed.
Peter Clarke activated an ‘urgent notification’ at the prison in the east of England last year after an inspection revealed troublingly high levels of violence, an issue with drugs and a rat infestation.
The unusual step meant the justice secretary was required to respond publicly with an action plan to tackle conditions.
But an inspection of the prison in August found that levels of violence remained very high, while self-harming had increased dramatically since the first tour of the prison in 2018.
Efforts to reduce violence had been limited and very slow to start, the report said, with the attention given to preventing self-harm and supporting those in crisis described as poor.
Meanwhile, inspectors warned of a “permissive culture of poor behaviour”, with prisoners refusing to return to their cells and “creating chaos when returning to units from outdoor exercise”.
“If not managed consistently and firmly, this negative behaviour had the potential to escalate, as we had witnessed during the inspection in 2018,” the report read.
The inspection also revealed that, despite concerted attempts by staff, illicit drugs remained a serious problem in the prison, while the force used by staff was considered to be exceptionally high.
The slowness of the response by the prison to improve conditions is “difficult to understand”, Clarke said, though he added that progress had been hampered by the appointment of a new governor in January.
“At Bedford, urgent action should have been driven by the clear threats to the safety of staff and prisoners identified during our inspection.”
Some progress had been made in improving living conditions though, inspectors found.
A serious rat infestation seen in the prison in 2018 had been successfully tackled, while prisoners were said to have better access to basics such as bedding and furniture.
“Appalling” conditions in segregation had also reportedly improved, though inspectors said Bedford remained unsuitable for prisoners with severe physical mobility problems.
Responding to the report, Phil Copple – the government’s director general of prisons – said levels of violence and drug use had fallen since the urgent notification was issued.
“Reducing violence, self-harm and drug use will remain top priorities and further support from the Prison Service’s national resources will continue,” he said.
“We’ve already bolstered the management team at the prison with more experienced leaders and we are exploring further security measures to stem the flow of drugs, funded by the government’s new £100 million investment.”
But Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said conditions would be slow to improve until the government quit “its addiction to imprisonment”.
“It is no surprise that the prisons which most consistently fail to deliver decent, safe conditions are overcrowded, very often with prisoners on remand or serving pointless short sentences,” Dawson said.
“Bedford, a 200-year-old pre-Victorian prison, is just one of many examples.”