Prison crisis worsens as fifth prison given urgent notification

The escape of a prisoner who was meant to be subject to constant supervision in July 2022 highlighted substantial weaknesses in security

Last week the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, issued an urgent notification for improvement within days of finishing the inspection on 9 November 2023. Bedford becomes the fifth establishment to receive with an urgent notification in the past 12 months. Mr Taylor said that conditions had deteriorated very sharply since the previous inspection in February last year.

The Urgent Notification Protocol requires the Secretary of State to respond in public within 28 days with plans to improve a prison where Mr Taylor has significant concerns over the treatment and conditions of prisoners.

Prison Conditions

The urgent notification letter sets out a litany of very concerning issues:

  • Levels of violence were very high particularly against staff which was the highest rate in any adult male prison in the country.
  • Bedford had the third highest rate of recorded self-harm in the adult male estate. Care for prisoners at risk of self-harm was undermined by an inadequate mental health service and weak case management.
  • New prisoners were placed into dirty, graffitied cells and were given a very limited induction – of particular concern in a reception prison.
  • The use of force remained very high, and we saw too many examples of excessive force as well as unprofessional behaviour connected to these incidents.
  • Three-quarters of the prisoners lived in overcrowded conditions. Most spent more than 22 hours a day locked in their cells. The wings were dirty and there was a widespread infestation of rats and cockroaches. Some cells had broken windows and black mould on the walls.
  • The segregation unit was squalid, staff were forced to use sandbags and wear wellington boots due to overflowing sewage pipes after heavy rain.
  • Prisoners expressed real frustration at their inability to get anything done for example, accessing their property, applying for a job or adding their families’ numbers to their phone. Staff prisoner relationships were transactional, key work was rare and the application and complaints systems were in disarray.
  • The escape of a prisoner who was meant to be subject to constant supervision in July 2022 highlighted substantial weaknesses in security. The local security strategy remained incomplete after it had been deleted by a previous manager. In addition, mandatory drug testing was not taking place.
  • Managers, staff, and prisoners reported witnessing incidents of racism. Oversight of fair treatment and inclusion had declined.
  • Education, training and work were regularly cancelled because of a lack of operational staff and teachers. Many prisoners were unemployed and yet for those who had an education place only about half attended their classes.

The Chief Inspector did note that the governor had taken action to address issues and poor staff performance in the 11 months since her appointment, but said that the scale of leadership changes at the prison including nine new senior leaders, had created delays to improvement.

He was sympathetic to some staff, observing that many staff and leaders were doing their best at Bedford but highlighted the fact that some of the problems the inspectors  uncovered were “symptomatic of systemic issues within the reception prison system”. He concluded the formal submission to the Secretary of State by saying that there will need to be a coordinated and sustained effort from national as well as local leaders to effect meaningful change at the prison.


The fact that this is the fifth urgent notification that the Chief Inspector has issued within the last twelve month period combined with the fact that Bedford prison itself was previously the subject of the protocol in September 2018 both point to the fact that the prison system is under enormous pressure and failing in many of its principal responsibilities. The frequent changes in prisons minister – Edward Argar was announced on Wednesday as the ninth different prison minister since January 2018 and the fifth since September 2021 – has clearly made it even more difficult for the Government to get a grip on the ongoing problems in our prison system.