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Our prison crisis worsens

Independent researcher and consultant Russell Webster says a formal letter from Peter Clarke sets out comprehensive failings

The Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke had to step in again today to protect prisoners and prison staff at HMP Bedford from living and working in an increasingly dangerous environment.

For the fourth time this year, the Chief Inspector has invoked the Urgent Notification (UN) Protocol which enables him to bring significant problems in a jail publicly to the attention of the justice secretary, who is required to respond within 28 days.

HMP Bedford has joined Nottingham, Exeter and Birmingham prisons on this very particular list of shame.

The UN process is triggered when the Chief Inspector finds “significant concerns with regard to the treatment and conditions of prisoners”, or, in plain English, when the inspectors go into a prison and find that it is out of control.

In his formal letter to David Gauke, Mr Clarke sets out some pretty comprehensive failings from the inspection which only ended last Thursday. These include:

  • Very high violence. The rate of assaults had risen significantly since the last inspection (in 2016) and Bedford was second only to HMP Birmingham. Assaults on staff were now at the highest rate in the country.
  • A lack of control. Inspectors saw prisoners refusing to comply with directions from staff, without sanction or effective challenge. Some 77 per cent of available officers had less than one year’s service and “there was a corresponding lack of experience at all levels.”
  • Drugs. One prisoner in five said they had acquired a drug habit since entering the jail, and the smell of cannabis and other drugs being smoked pervaded some of the wings.
  • Poor living conditions. Bedford was overcrowded. There was a huge backlog of general repairs. Towels and sheets were only being changed every four weeks and despite efforts to deal with the problem the prison was still infested with rats and cockroaches.
  • Little purposeful activity. The prison lacked a culture of work or learning. Even though there were sufficient activity places for every prisoner, at least on a part-time basis, few chose to attend.


To the general public, this might seem no big deal, just another story of our failing prisons. However, today’s news seems to confirm what many of us have been afraid to say out loud for some time: is it too late to turn around the prison crisis?

I don’t say this lightly but the evidence is stacking up:

  • The Urgent Notification system did not even exist this time last year. It was only introduced at the insistence of the Chief Inspector who was furious that the prison reform bill was abandoned after the 2017 election (mainly because almost all the available Parliamentary time is being used up on Brexit) and wanted to ensure that the government was held accountable for the state of our prisons. He pursued the issue of urgent notifications directly with the then Justice Secretary, David Lidington, until on November 30 2017, the MoJ agreed to establish the process outside of primary legislation.
  • Despite recruiting almost 3,000 extra additional prison officers since last summer, the rate at which Urgent Notifications are being issued has become more frequent. The first UN (Nottingham) was issued on January 17 this year and the second (Exeter) not until four and a half months later (May 30). However, we only had to wait until 16 August for the Chief Inspector to raise concerns about Birmingham and less than a month until today’s Bedford UN.
  • In the case of Bedford, the Chief Inspector’s desperation is clear to see. Bedford is a small local prison which suffered a major outbreak of violence in November 2016, after which a large number of prisoners were removed but by May this year HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) concluded that Bedford was making insufficient progress against an internal Performance Improvement Plan and put the prison into special measures. However, just three months later Mr Clarke has such little confidence in the special measures that he has chosen this most public way of raising his concerns.


Most readers will be aware that Prisons Minister Rory Stewart garnered many headlines last month when he promised to quit if conditions in our prisons did not improve markedly over the next 12 months.

He specifically stated he was expecting to reduce the number of assaults “substantially”. Today’s news shows his “back to basics” approach has yet to bear fruit. By my reckoning, he has 11 months and three days before he takes up a seat on the back benches.

Russell Webster qualified as a probation officer in the UK and worked with offenders in North and East London. He also worked for a range of voluntary sector organisations with homeless people, ex-offenders and young people at risk in both this country and the USA. For the last 20 years he has been an independent researcher and consultant specialising in drugs & crime; he runs a successful blog on the latest developments in the criminal justice sector at www.russellwebster.com