Urgent warning over ‘squalid overcrowded’ prison where inmate escaped and was found cycling to London

An emergency warning has been issued over the state of a prison where inspectors criticised squalid cells, soaring rates of violence and self-harm, and the escape of an inmate who should have been under constant supervision.

HMP Bedford had the highest levels of violent assaults on staff and the third highest rate of self-harm incidents across all mens’ prisons in England and Wales, while prisoners were spending up to 23 hours a day locked up in the rat and cockroach-infested jail.

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor said that “many of the issues we found at Bedford reflect wider problems across the estate” and said it was “damning indictment of the state of prisons”.

He handed the all-male category B Bedford prison an immediate improvement notice requiring ministers to come up with an emergency action plan.

It is fifth warning of its kind to be issued to jails in the past year in an ever-growing sign of the the shocking state of the crumbling and overcrowded system.

Mr Taylor said there were not enough staff at the prison and those working there were “inexperienced” and failed “to deal with low-level behaviour”. He added: “We found examples of excessive use of force and abuse of prisoners. Staff, prisoners and managers also told inspectors they had witnessed racism.”

He also criticised management over a prisoner escape in July 2022 that saw the fleeing inmate cycle 40 miles to London before he was recaptured. The prisoner managed to escape from the visits area of the jail and was eventually caught on the A1 on a bicycle he had stolen from the repair workshop at the jail.

Mr Taylor said the prisoner had “almost unbelievably” managed to escape when he was “supposedly under constant supervision”.

The inspection found many prisoners were locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, with 67 per cent of inmates reporting spending less than two hours out of their cell each day. The prison, which has an operational capacity of 400, also had a problem with cockroaches and rats.

Cells were in poor condition, with mouldly walls, broken windows and graffiti. Just under three-quarters of the population were in overcrowded cells, inspectors added.

Self harm had risen by 84 per cent since the last inspection in 2022 and there had been 533 incidents of self-harm in the last 12 months.

Pia Sinha, chief executive of the Prison Reform Trust, said the inspection revealed problems that were “symptomatic of a wider crisis in staff retention, prison capacity and underinvestment”. Andrea Coomber, at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the report was “devastating”.

“Exactly 250 years ago, John Howard visited Bedford prison and was so horrified by the conditions that he devoted the rest of his life to reform. It is scandalous that we are having the same conversation today.”

The Independent revealed in September that thousands of the most experienced prison officers had quit the service in the past five years. There were over 11,000 prison officers who had served for 10 years or more in the service in 2017. This has now fallen to just 6,681 in the statistics from June this year.

The number of staff who have less than three years of experience has also been increasing – 36.3 per cent of officers had less than three years of service in 2023, compared with 27.2 per cent in June 2017.

A record 88,225 people are currently in prison leading to increased overcrowding and the population is expected to rise further to between 93,100 and 106,300 by March 2027.

In response to the urgent notification, Prisons Minister Edward Argar said: “The findings of this inspection are unacceptable which is why we are taking immediate action to address the concerns raised.”

He added that extra staff will be deployed to enhance safety and the Ministry of Justice will publish an action plan with next steps.

He added: “Across the estate we are boosting officer numbers – with almost 1,500 more employed over the last year – and have increased starting salaries to more than £30,000 which is helping to improve retention. We are also pressing ahead with our plans to deliver the biggest prison expansion since the Victoria era by investing £4 billion to build 20,000 new places.”

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