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"Insufficient" progress made at addressing safety issues at Bedford Prison

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"Insufficient" progress has been made in addressing problems at a jail which was found to have alarming levels of drug-fuelled violence a year ago.

The findings of an inspection at HMP Bedford in 2018 were so troubling that Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke took the rare step of invoking the "Urgent Notification" (UN) protocol, requiring the Secretary of State for Justice to respond publicly with an improvement action plan.

Credit: PA

When inspectors returned for an independent review in August this year, Mr Clarke said "they found a mixed picture with progress ranging from none to good, but in the majority of areas progress had been insufficient".

The level of violence was still very high, with some serious incidents, and self-harm had increased dramatically since the inspection.

Efforts to reduce violence had been limited and very slow to start, and the attention given to preventing self-harm and supporting those in crisis was poor, inspectors said. The report noted: "In this permissive culture of poor behaviour, prisoners felt able to push the boundaries further - such as refusing to return to their cell at lock-up time or 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."

Mr Clarke said despite significant efforts illicit drugs continued to be a major problem, and the lack of a body scanner to detect drugs was indefensible.

Inspectors said the use of force by staff was exceptionally high and needed immediate attention to identify the reasons why.

Among more positive findings, living conditions, including "appalling" conditions in segregation, had improved, as had prisoner access to basics such as bedding and furniture, though Bedford remained an unsuitable location for prisoners with severe physical mobility problems.

A serious problem with rats had been successfully tackled, and overall there was good progress in ensuring prisoners lived in clean and decent conditions.

Mr Clarke said progress in addressing the serious issues raised in the Urgent Notification issued in September 2018 had clearly been hampered because the prison had been far too slow in taking remedial action.

Credit: PA

"A new governor took up post in January 2019 and had to take some time to assess what he found and draw up his own plans. The result was that it took around six months before the prison started to make any properly focused response to the UN. This is not the first time I have had to comment on the slow response to a UN. At Bedford, urgent action should have been driven by the clear threats to the safety of staff and prisoners identified during our inspection. The slowness of the response is difficult to understand."

– Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons

Mr Clarke said there is a "real need" for the corporate HM Prison and Probation Service response to Urgent Notifications to become prompt, focused on specific HMIP recommendations and regularly monitored against outcomes. "It is to the credit of the leadership at Bedford that they have generated their own plans that are focused on the specific issues affecting the prison, and are much more closely aligned to the concerns expressed by HMIP," he said

"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. Bedford, a 200-year-old pre-Victorian prison, is just one of many examples. If it is serious about ending this scandal, the Government must start by quitting its addiction to imprisonment."

– Peter Dawson, Prison Reform Trus

"The new governor and his staff have been working hard to improve conditions at Bedford and levels of violence and drug use have fallen since the urgent notification. Reducing violence, self-harm and drug use will remain top priorities and further support from the Prison Service's national resources will continue. 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."

– Phil Copple, Director general of prisons