A REPORT on Bedford prison published on 14 February reveals the full scale of problems that led HM Chief Inspector of Prisons to write to the Secretary of State for Justice in November to invoke an Urgent Notification about the state of the jail.

An inner-city, Victorian reception prison, Bedford held prisoners in some of the worst conditions inspectors have seen. Filthy floors and serveries compounded the overcrowded conditions in which most prisoners were held, while many cells had broken furniture and windows and were covered in graffiti. Some cells were damp and had problems with mould, and on days of heavy rain the segregation unit ran with sewage. The jail was also battling infestations with rats and cockroaches.

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “Some of the accommodation in Bedford was the worst I have seen. The smell of mould in one cell was overpowering, with the walls damp to the touch, while the underground segregation unit, which held acutely mentally unwell men, was a disgrace. If our prisons are truly going to protect the public, then they must be able to play their part in supporting men and women to move on from offending. Penning people in squalor for 23 hours a day with no meaningful access to education, training or work, or to fresh air or exercise is not going to achieve that, as the levels of violence and self-harm at Bedford attest.”

Inspectors were particularly concerned about the increase in levels of self-harm and the fragility of the support for the most vulnerable prisoners, particularly as there had been a serious deterioration in mental health services. Levels of violence remained very high, particularly assaults on staff which were among the highest in the country. Much of this was the result of the limited time that prisoners had out of cell to escape their terrible living conditions in the fresh air and with anything meaningful to occupy their time. Inspectors also branded the applications and complaints systems “disastrous”, with prisoners finding it impossible to get questions answered or problems solved. Concerningly, particularly given reports of direct racism by staff, discrimination incident reports were also poorly managed with 40 being replied to late and many failing to address the concerns raised.

Thirty per cent of prisoners were released homeless, making it virtually impossible to break the cycle of mental health difficulties, drug taking, crime and imprisonment.

The governor of Bedford, who had been in post since January 2023, understood the scale of the problems at the jail and was having to rebuild her leadership team in response to complicated personnel challenges. But inspectors did not think that she was visible enough around the prison wings where conditions had deteriorated sharply since the last inspection.

Mr Taylor further commented: “While we left Bedford very concerned about the ongoing problems at the jail, there were many hardworking staff doing their best in difficult conditions. The governor and her team will need considerable support from the prison service to achieve what will be a difficult and lengthy transformation of a neglected prison.”

* The full report is available here.

* Source: HM Inspectorate of Prisons