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Howard League blog · 11 Apr 2024

The segregation unit in Bedford prison

The segregation unit in Bedford prison is one of the darkest corners of the criminal justice system. When inspectors visited in October and November 2023, they found two underground landings, one of which was so flooded with sewage after periods of heavy rain that staff kept sandbags to help stem the tide. Cells were damp, with broken furniture and stained toilets, and some smelt of human effluent.

Conditions were so bad in the unit, and across the prison more broadly, that inspectors invoked the ‘urgent notification’ process, pointing to a litany of failures requiring immediate attention. It was the second time in five years that this had happened at Bedford.

Despite the terrible conditions on the segregation unit, records showed that 278 men had been held there in the 12 months leading to the inspection. The average stay was 11 days, but 11 men had been held there for more than six weeks, one for more than 12 weeks and another for more than 18 weeks.

The government had long accepted that the unit needed to be closed – most recently in December 2023 when the Secretary of State for Justice published an action plan for the prison committing to open a new unit by April 2024. But in February 2024 it seemed as if the goalposts had been moved yet again, with Edward Argar, the prisons minister, admitting in response to parliamentary questions tabled by Bedford MP Mohammad Yasin, that the government’s aim was now for the new unit “to open before the end of the year”.

Now, at long last, an end to this grim scandal appears to be in sight – after pressure from the Howard League.

Frustrated by the government’s latest apparent attempt to kick the can down the road, last month we sent a letter threatening to judicially review the Secretary of State if he continued to place people in the segregation unit at Bedford, given the overwhelming evidence of abject living conditions there.

The government’s lawyers have since responded to our proposed claim and, contrary to the prisons minister’s admission in February, told us that the completion and opening of the new segregation unit is “on track for Spring 2024” and that “the current segregation unit will be closed with immediate effect and any prisoners there will be transferred to the new unit”.

Although the exact date is to be confirmed, this is good news. Nobody should be held in conditions described as “squalid” by the inspectors, with “dilapidated cells that were unsuitable for their purpose” and where staff keep wellington boots to hand for wading through sewage.

This is a small but important issue affecting one prison that has attracted significant criticism from inspectors and in the media, but it is also indicative of wider problems in the prison system. Plans to expand the system even further, when prisons like Bedford operate in such squalor, suggest things will get far worse before they can get better.

The Howard League will continue to do what it can, both on specific issues and larger, systemic challenges, to see meaningful prison reform take hold. But it is only with your support that we can do so. If you can, please help us to continue this important work, either by joining as a member or making a donation. Thank you.

Gemma Abbott


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