Sir David Ramsbotham said he was "surprised and horrified" at conditions in Wormwood Scrubs, in London, which contains one of the country's three wings for life offenders and a large population of inmates awaiting trial.
Sir David was particularly critical of the facilities for about 300 people on remand who had some of the worst facilities and conditions, although they were not convicted.
The strongest criticism was reserved for the management and the "inexplicable absence" of planning. The regime was described as "impoverished" and lacking in direction, with many inmates given little exercise or useful activities.
The prison houses more than a 1,000 inmates, a mixture of people on remand, convicted criminals, immigration detainees and those given life sentences. There are about 200 murderers.
Much of the accommodation was criticised for being dirty. "What we found was reminiscent of the worst local prisons in the pre-Woolf era," the report said, referring to the reforms introduced on Lord Woolf's recommendation in 1989.
It added: "The out-of-date attitudes that we found have no place in the modern world."
There were about 250 foreign prisoners, many of whom did not speak English and were not provided with any way of communicating with the authorities.
Sir David concluded: "Wormwood Scrubs is often referred to as the `flagship' of the Prison Service. If we were to extend the nautical analogy it could be said that the ship is now dead in the water and been overtaken by other ships of the line."
The Prison Service said yesterday that the jail's new governor had started work on a strategic plan. Richard Tilt, director general of the Prison Service, said the jail could regain its former position. He added: "I share the Inspectorate's concern that, due to the difficulties of managing a fully operational prison undergoing an immense building programme in recent years, Wormwood Scrubs' regime has been eroded and its reputation damaged."Reuse content