Fifth prison in a year issued with an Urgent Notification for improvement as inspectors find violence, squalid conditions and spiralling self-harm

Conditions at HMP Bedford, a category B reception prison, had deteriorated so sharply since the last inspection that the Chief Inspector of Prisons issued an Urgent Notification for improvement within days of finishing the inspection on 9 November 2023. Bedford becomes the fifth establishment to receive an Urgent Notification in the past 12 months.

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said:

“This latest inspection is a damning indictment of the state of prisons. Many of the issues we found at Bedford reflect wider problems across the estate. There were not enough staff, and prisoners were held in overcrowded and squalid conditions with very high rates of violence and self-harm. The inexperienced staff team were failing to deal with low-level behaviour and we found examples of excessive use of force and abuse of prisoners. Staff, prisoners and managers also told inspectors they had witnessed racism. Many prisoners were locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day and even the minority who were in education or training would frequently find it cancelled because of staffing pressures. There had also been, almost unbelievably, an escape by a prisoner supposedly under constant supervision.”

Bedford had the highest levels of violent assaults against staff in adult male prisons in England and Wales, even higher than at HMP Woodhill, which received an Urgent Notification in August. The amount of force used by staff was also very high, and inspectors saw examples of inappropriate and excessive force alongside unprofessional behaviour such as swearing at prisoners. While there had been recent improvements in oversight and all incidents were now reviewed by managers, previous poor practice had not been identified.

Around three-quarters of prisoners lived in overcrowded conditions, with little relief from the confines of their cell as most reported having fewer than two hours unlocked each day. Some prisoners were housed in mouldy cells, with broken windows and graffiti and the prison was infested with both cockroaches and rats. Education, employment and training that would have allowed men time out of their cells were frequently cancelled.

Further evidence of the poor conditions in which men were being held was the levels of self-harm, which had risen by 84% since the last inspection.

Other key areas were also in a state of disarray, with significant disruption to health care following the introduction of a new contract resulting in gaps in patients receiving medication. The service offered by the mental health team was poor and did not meet the needs of the population. Other key shortfalls included the post of equality manager, which had been unfilled for a year. Worryingly, prisoners, staff and managers reported witnessing racism.

Mr Taylor continued:

“Urgent action is needed to improve conditions at Bedford. Reception prisons are already, by their nature, risky establishments to run, with a high churn of prisoners including new arrivals who are particularly vulnerable when they are struggling with drug or alcohol withdrawal or the shock of arriving in jail. It is very concerning that this is the third Urgent Notification for a reception prison that I have issued, and the fifth overall in the last year.”

Notes to editors

  1. Read the letter announcing the Urgent Notification at HMP Bedford (150 kB) and HMP Bedford inspection debriefing paper (208 kB) sent to the Secretary of State on 15 November.
  2. This inspection took place between 30 October and 9 November 2023.
  3. The Urgent Notification process was introduced in 2017 and is a means of raising immediate, urgent concerns following an inspection which requires a response and action plan from the Secretary of State within 28 days. A full report from the inspection is still published in the normal time frame of within 14 weeks of the inspection. The Urgent Notification is supported by the evidence of the debrief from the inspection, which is presented to the governor, and which outlines the key issues which will be explored in more detail in the full report once published.
  4. We invoke an Urgent Notification by writing to the Secretary of State for Justice within seven calendar days of completing an inspection setting out our concerns. We also tell the governor of the prison that we are doing so. The Secretary of State then has 28 days following publication of the Urgent Notification to reply to us setting out an action plan of improvement. Find out more about Urgent Notifications.
  5. The inspection team assesses the establishment’s performance against the applicable healthy establishment tests using the following judgements: 4 – outcomes for prisoners are good, 3 – outcomes for prisoners are reasonably good, 2 – outcomes for prisoners are not sufficiently good and 1 – outcomes for prisoners are poor. In this inspection, the scores were Safety – 1, Respect – 1, Purposeful activity – 1, Preparation for release – 2.
  6. This is the largest number of Urgent Notifications that have been issued within a 12-month period since the Urgent Notification protocol was introduced in 2017. Of the five establishments issued with an Urgent Notification over the past year, Bedford was the third reception prison, and all three have previously received Urgent Notifications. Bedford previously received an Urgent Notification in 2018. The two remaining establishments were Woodhill, a category B prison, and Cookham Wood, a young offender institution.
  7. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  8. Please email if you would like more information.