Watchdog condemns conditions at Bedford prison

Watchdog condemns conditions at Bedford prison

A report has found violence is rife, and the Victorian jail is infested with rats and cockroaches

The squalid conditions in a Victorian jail rife with violence and infested with rats and cockroaches have been laid bare in a damning watchdog report.

Chief inspector of prisons Charlie Taylor said the “filthy” conditions at HMP Bedford are some of the worst he has seen amid warnings that levels of violence remained “very high”, with the number of assaults on staff “among the highest in the country”.

Last year Mr Taylor called for the category B prison, which can hold around 400 inmates and has a history of problems including riots in 2016, to be put into emergency measures.

He wrote to Justice Secretary Alex Chalk in November to issue an urgent notification for improvement when the inspection raised serious concerns about violence, living conditions and high rates of self-harm.

Describing this as a “damning indictment of the state of prisons”, Mr Taylor said many of the issues found at Bedford reflect wider problems behind bars throughout England and Wales.

At the time, MPs in the Commons also heard how inmates slept with covers over their mouths to stop cockroaches crawling in.

Detailing the catalogue of problems as he published his full report on Wednesday, Mr Taylor said the “neglected” jail needs “sustained support” in order to improve.

“Some of the accommodation in Bedford was the worst I have seen”, he said, adding: “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.”

Levels of violence were “very high” compared with similar prisons, with the fifth highest rate of assaults between prisoners (396 per 1,000 prisoners).

Assaults against staff were the highest of any adult male prison in England and Wales (410 per 1,000 prisoners), according to the report, although the number of serious assaults had reduced by 18% over the past year.

Inmates “regularly saw vermin” and resorted to “creating their own barriers to prevent vermin from coming into their cells” amid unhygienic conditions on the prison wings.

Inspectors were particularly concerned about the rise in incidents of self-harm while there had been a “serious deterioration” in mental health services.

They also highlighted allegations of “direct racism by staff” as they warned discrimination incident reports were “poorly managed”.

Around a third of prisoners were homeless when they were released, making it “virtually impossible to break the cycle of mental health difficulties, drug taking, crime and imprisonment”, according to the findings.

Governor Ali Barker, who had been in post since January 2023, had a “reasonable understanding of the many challenges facing the jail” but was “not visible enough” around the prison wings where conditions had deteriorated since the previous inspection in 2022, the report said.

Mr Taylor added: “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.”

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “The findings of this inspection are unacceptable which is why we’re taking urgent action to address the concerns raised.

“This includes deploying extra frontline officers to reduce violence and improve safety, undertaking refurbishments to improve living conditions, and ensuring offenders get greater access to the education and skills they need to turn their backs on crime.”

Published: by Radio NewsHub

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