A prison has been locked down 24/7 after intelligence that a firearm had been smuggled into the jail, potentially for a breakout, the Telegraph can reveal.
Officers mounted intensive search of cells at HMP Bedford over the weekend after receiving what sources described as “credible” intelligence of a weapon having been smuggled in.
Prisoners were ordered to remain in their cells round-the-clock and only allowed out for searches of them. It is understood the incident is ongoing.
Prison sources said it was “very unusual,” adding that a jail breakout or hostage-taking were potential motives for sneaking a firearm into a jail.
“An escape attempt would be the most likely reason,” said one experienced senior officer.
The prison has a high proportion of foreign offenders who account for more than a sixth (17 per cent) of the inmates, according to a HM chief inspector of prisons report on HMP Bedford last year.
The inspection also found levels of violence within the jail that were “some of the highest” in England and Wales. Conditions were described as “unacceptable,” particularly on A and B wings where most prisoners shared “shabby, cramped cells designed for one person.”
'Totally trashed' in riot
Two wings of the jail were “totally trashed” in a riot in November 2016 which was fuelled by frustration over “disgraceful conditions” including a failure to provide basic items such as soap, cleaning materials and toilet paper, according a follow-up investigation by HMP Bedford’s independent watchdog.
Government sources said the reasons for any firearm being smuggled into the jail were unknown.
Prison Officers Association (POA) officials said that if the intelligence proved correct, a firearm could have been dropped in by a drone, smuggled in by a visitor or thrown over the perimeter wall at a scheduled time to be picked up by an inmate.
“It doesn’t have to be a complete firearm. You could bring it in over time in parts for someone in the jail with the necessary expertise to assemble it inside,” said a prison source.
Mark Fairhurst, general secretary of the POA, said there needed to be more investment in not just security equipment - such as scanners and X-ray machines - but also trained security staff, more dog patrols to counter contraband being thrown over perimeters, and anti-drone technology.
“We have drone blockers but the prison service is refusing to buy them. The argument is that if you put a drone blocking signal on a drone and it drops out of the sky onto a prisoner, the prison is liable for the injury,” he said.
The incident comes as the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has been forced to introduce a series of urgent measures - including the use of police cells and early release of prisoners on tags - to help tackle an overcrowding crisis. There are estimated to be as few as 600 places left in secure, rather than open prisons.
HMP Bedford is a category B Victorian men’s prison, which has been on its current site since 1801. In 2009, the prison’s watchdog expressed concerns at the high number of prisoners serving life sentences in the jail. As a local prison, it holds both people on remand to the local courts as well as sentenced offenders.
Former inmates have included John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, for unlicensed preaching, James Hanratty, one of the last people to be executed in Britain when he was hanged in 1962.
A prison service spokesman said: “Specialist prison officers are carrying out an intelligence-led search at HMP Bedford and it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.
“We are also stepping up the war against illicit phones, drugs and contraband in prisons, and are investing up to £125m in tough new security measures.”