The prison watchdog has issued an official warning to the government about HMP Bedford and said the jail is “on a path of seemingly inexorable decline”.
It is the fourth prison to receive an “urgent notification” in the space of nine months, with Nottingham, Exeter and Birmingham having all been subject to the same warning since the start of the year.
The notice triggers a process that forces the government to publish a response and plan of action for the prison within 28 days, as well as a longer-term proposal for sustained improvement.
Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, warned of “very high” violence and inexperienced staff struggling to maintain control at HMP Bedford and questioned whether the prison service’s “special measures” would be sufficient to address serious problems.
He urged David Gauke, the justice secretary, to intervene after a visit in which inspectors feared “there could all too easily be a complete breakdown in order and discipline”.
In a letter to Mr Gauke, Mr Clarke wrote: “It is of great concern that for seven years the prison has been on a path of seemingly inexorable decline. Repeated inspection findings clearly show that this has been the case.
“For much of that time there was a marked inconsistency in the leadership of the prison, with frequent changes of governor. The present governor has now been in post for over a year, and that is welcome.
“The question for me is whether she and her team, clearly determined as they are to improve the prison, have the capability and capacity to do so … My judgement is that placing the prison in ‘special measures’ does not, in itself, give assurance that the serious issues … will be adequately addressed.”
In response to the warning, Rory Stewart, the prisons minister, conceded it was “abundantly clear” further action was needed in the prison. He said the government’s focus would be on reducing violence and drugs along with supporting prison officers to “turn Bedford around”.
The Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), which has had significant concerns and the board at HMP Bedford, said it was “sad, but not surprised” the warning had been served.
The board described the jail as a “dungeon” with infestations of rats and cockroaches, “disgusting” amounts of rubbish lying around and rising levels of violence.
“The prison has gone backwards in recent months, with regular shortages of basic items, far too long between kit changes, pigeons flying round inside the jail, infestations of cockroaches and, more recently rats, in most areas,” it said in a statement.
“The struggle to keep the prison clean is being lost and at times the amount of litter and rubbish lying around is disgusting. These are not appropriate conditions in which to detain prisoners in the 21st century.
“Despite numerous attempts at refurbishment, the environment of the segregation unit is simply appalling. It is a dungeon. The toilets frequently block, there has been a consistent infestation of cockroaches and, during the summer, there has been a plague of rats.
“Violence has increased steadily over the last 12 months and there has been an increased viciousness of individual attacks on officers. The mental health service is also inadequate in terms of its resources and coverage.”
Richard Burgon, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, said the urgent notification was “yet more evidence of the emergency facing our prisons system”, and argued that government cuts to budgets and staff had created an “unprecedented crisis”.
He added: “The government’s recent solution to the widespread failure at HMP Birmingham was to increase prison staff and reduce prisoner numbers there. With the same problems happening across the prison estate, it’s time the government launched an emergency plan and new funds to end overcrowding and understaffing across the prison estate.”
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This damning verdict on Bedford prison has not come out of nowhere; as the chief inspector says, this is a story of inexorable and unchecked decline.
“Since the beginning of 2016, at least six men in Bedford prison have lost their lives through suicide. We have seen consistent warnings about overcrowding and violence, a shocking riot, the creation of a performance improvement plan and the imposition of special measures – and none of these drastic events has prompted decisive action to turn the prison around.”
In response to the notice, Mr Stewart said: “Bedford prison faces serious challenges. We placed it in special measures before the inspection was conducted and we are bringing in senior experienced managers.
“Our focus will be on reducing violence and drugs along with supporting our prison officers to turn Bedford around. It is abundantly clear that further action is needed. I am grateful to the chief inspector for his work.”
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