Inspection of HMP Bedford

The prison was given an inspection in March 2021.  In their report actual  the inspectors said:

HMP Bedford is a category B reception and resettlement prison for young adult and adult men. It has stood on its current site in the centre of Bedford since the early 19th century and accepts prisoners mainly from the local Crown and magistrates’ courts. At the time of this scrutiny visit, it held about 372 prisoners, which was fewer than at the time of our last full inspection in 2018.

Outcomes for prisoners at the time of our 2018 inspection were poor on three out of the four healthy prison tests, which led my predecessor to issue an urgent notification to the Secretary of State. An independent review of progress was undertaken in 2019, in which we found a mixed picture, with insufficient progress made against achieving many of our recommendations.

Bedford has  been under considerable pressure, owing to the impact of COVID-19. The prison returned to level 4 of the national recovery framework (see Glossary of terms) in January 2021 and had experienced two large-scale outbreaks of the virus in December 2020 and February 2021. At its peak, the second outbreak saw 20% of prisoners testing positive and a large proportion of staff absent from work. Leaders were committed to managing the spread of COVID-19 and worked hard to apply guidance on isolating prisoners. At the time of our scrutiny visit, no further prisoners had tested positive, but some staff absences continued.

The governor had a clear understanding of the issues facing Bedford before and during the pandemic and was committed to taking steps out of the restricted regime at the earliest opportunity. Communication with prisoners about the pandemic and the restricted regime was thoughtful and proactive and peer workers were used creatively to inform and support others. Our survey showed that most prisoners were aware of the COVID-19 restrictions.

Improvements in living conditions had been made, including extensive and good-quality refurbishment of communal shower rooms. The prison was cleaner and the provision of basic items such as bedding, clean clothing and cell cleaning materials was now more reliable. The work on equality and diversity had seen some recent improvements. Health care provision was reasonably good, but medicines  administration on the wings needed to be improved.

Efforts to improve outcomes for prisoners continued to be made throughout the pandemic, such as increasing the size of the safer custody team, but these had not yet been fully effective in making the prison safer and many of our previous concerns persisted. The reported level of assaults between prisoners and on staff was the highest of all similar prisons over the last year. In our survey, 30% of prisoners said that they currently felt unsafe and nearly half said that they had been bullied or victimised by staff. We saw some dedicated staff who interacted with prisoners well in order to provide good care and support. However, we also saw many examples of rule breaking going unchallenged, which fed the perception that prisoners could behave badly without fear of repercussion. The quality of staff–prisoner relationships remained mixed, with not all staff buying into the vision of a rehabilitative approach set out by the governor. Formal key work support had been suspended at the start of the pandemic,  which was a shame,  given the positive start that the establishment had made in this area. Recorded rates of self-harm had reduced over recent months, but some weaknesses in the care and support given to those who were vulnerable or at risk of self-harm continued.

Senior leaders had an ambitious and clear vision for education, skills and work. They spoke confidently about how they intended to return to a full regime once restrictions allowed. Leaders recognised that the current regime did not meet the needs of the whole prison population. Only around a third of the prisoners accessed in-cell education. A large proportion of prisoners continued to work, to make sure that essential services were maintained, and two additional workshops had been opened during the pandemic.

The important focus on rehabilitation and release planning to reduce reoffending and improve successful resettlement had largely been lost at the start of the pandemic. While the offender management unit maintained its focus on completing essential tasks linked to progression, face-to-face support was rare. The absence of such support from community rehabilitation company (CRC) staff was a huge frustration for the governor and others,  and left many prisoners ill-equipped for release. Direct support aimed at promoting positive family relationships had also ended a year ago and the slow implementation of in-  cell telephones did not help in promoting contact with loved ones.

Overall, many of the key concerns that we identify in this report reflect the challenges that leaders at Bedford   have faced for many years. While improvements were evident under our test  of respect, the more systemic issues of high levels of violence and underdeveloped staff–prisoner relationships persisted. The challenge of COVID-19 had led to poorer outcomes in rehabilitation and release planning and a lack of progress in our test of purposeful activity.

Charlie Taylor
HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
March 2021

 Return to Bedford

The full reports can be read at the Ministry of Justice web site, just follow the links below: