HMP BEDFORD – Still very violent, with little or no progress on addressing key safety issues

HMIP made an IRP visit to HMP Bedford between 5 and 7 August 2019.

Nearly a year after an inspection which triggered an Urgent Notification at HMP Bedford, a review by inspectors found insufficient or no progress in key aspects of safety and security.

The prison was found to be fundamentally unsafe at the full inspection in August and September 2018, with alarming levels of drug-fuelled violence.

When inspectors returned for an independent review of progress in August 2019, according to Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, “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. The attention given to preventing self-harm and supporting those in crisis was poor.”

Inspectors found that prisoners appeared to have little to fear from behaving badly. Some staff were reluctant to challenge rule breaking because they felt that the formal procedures to address prisoners’ poor behaviour were not effective.

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.”

Use of force by staff was exceptionally high and needed immediate attention to identify the reasons why. Despite significant efforts, Mr Clarke said, illicit drugs continued to be a major problem, and the lack of a body scanner to detect drugs was indefensible.

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. Overall, there was good progress in ensuring prisoners lived in clean and decent conditions.

There had been no increase in the time that prisoners had out of their cell for association, outdoor exercise and completing domestic tasks. However, Ofsted inspectors judged there to be sufficient progress in two of the three themes they reviewed. Progress in the three areas of rehabilitation and release planning that were reviewed was reasonable or good.

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

Overall, 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. There has not yet been time for them to have the desired impact, but at least there is now encouraging progress in some areas.”

Mark Leech, Editor of The Prisons Handbook called the report ‘disappointing”.

Mr Leech said: “I think that, like many others, when Urgent Notifications were introduced they were expected to lead to real improvements – this report shows that should have been more of a hope than an expectation.

” A year down the line not only has very little changed at Bedford, but in some key areas of safety they have actually got worse and that is what I find disappointing and frankly unacceptable.

“Urgent Notifications were introduced because prisons, year after year, were failing to implement the recommendations of the Prisons Inspectorate with the inevitable result that when things reached absolute rock bottom the Urgent Notification was meant to identify that, and with an action plan resolve it.

“That has not happened and it risks undermining the whole Urgent Notification process itself.”