HMP Bedford: inspector invokes Urgent Notification protocol

By agency reporter
January 23, 2019

HMP Bedford, one of the oldest local prisons in Britain, was found by inspectors to have suffered an “inexorable decline” in treatment and conditions despite two years of internal prison service efforts to improve the jail.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, found no credible plans by the prison or HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) to address Bedford’s “dangerous shortcomings.”

So troubling 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, which was published on 22 January:

  • Only one comparable local 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 per cent on their first night.
  • Pest control work had failed to eradicate significant rat infestation. One notice on a door read: “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 per cent 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.”

Overall, 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.”

* Read the report on HMP Bedford here

* HM Inspectorate of Prisons


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