In their 2019-20 annual report the IMB at Bedford highlight a number of concerns, but note a number of positive changes over the reporting year:
- Violent incidents between prisoners and levels of self-harm are lower than last year.
- There has been some success in reducing the amount of illicit drugs entering the prison.
- While a scanner already exists for prisoners, the prison await the imminent installation of a sophisticated body scanner for all visitors and staff to be located in the Reception area is hoped to further improve the detection and prevention of illicit substances entering the prison.
- The prison has made significant improvements regarding cleanliness and reducing the infestations of rats and cockroaches on the wings which were a big problem last year.
- A lot of effort has gone into improving the range of educational and vocational opportunities for prisoners but Bedford, like all prisons, has struggled with lack of funding for these activities and poor coordination ‘through the gate’.
On the negative side:
- Violent assaults by prisoners on staff are still worryingly high.
- The results of mandatory drug testing on prisoners show a steady increase of positive tests from January this year. This probably reflects the increased prevalence of gang activity inside the prison.
- Due to a lack of funding, the small group of professional mental health staff have struggled to provide adequate care across the prison.
- Similarly, although the Healthcare service (provided by Northamptonshire NHS Foundation Trust) has generally been good – particularly during the COVID crisis – staffing resources are limited.
The prison has managed the COVID lockdown very well. Thus, Bedford is among a small number of establishments which, during the reporting period, avoided any positive cases among residents. However, there have been significant reductions of staff, either off sick with symptoms, or forced to self-isolate. At times, up to a third of staff have been affected in this way.
Unsurprisingly the necessary restrictions inmates have faced to reduce the risk of spreading the virus have had a significant impact on their lives. They have had to cope with the stresses of confinement for long periods and lack of contact with their relatives. These two factors have almost certainly led to an increase in mental health problems among prisoners, but so far it has not been possible to quantify these effects.
Finally, it is worth noting that one of the most important casualties of the COVID pandemic has been the provision of constructive rehabilitation for those leaving the prison. As last year, the number of prisoners released with no fixed accommodation remains worryingly high (about one per week) and when they are released jobs are now very scarce. These are national problems and require coordinated government action to address them.
IMB Chair, Geoff Shepherd said: “Compared with previous years, we think that conditions in the prison have generally improved. There is still a long way to go in many areas, but significant progress has been made. The prison was also well managed during the COVID-19 crisis. (These) … improvements are due entirely to the vision and commitment of the Governor and the senior leadership team and we commend them for their efforts under very difficult circumstances”.