Chelmsford Prison was found to be a violent and unsafe prison, with large volumes of drugs smuggled in by the many organised crime gang members in the Essex jail - according to a fresh report.

Levels of violence were “far too high” and not enough had been done to ensure the underlying causes were understood or addressed.

Use of force by staff was also high.

Much of the violence was related to the supply and use of illicit drugs, and the positive drug testing rate was among the highest inspectors had seen, at over 40 per cent.

The level of finds of illicit material was consistently high: in a single month, the prison had seized 28 drug packages, 44 mobile phones and 18 parcels that had been thrown over the perimeter wall.

The estimated value in the prison of this monthly haul was more than more than £15,000.

The prison had also experienced high levels of self-harm and suicide, with 16 self-inflicted deaths over eight years, and its response to suicide and self-harm had been inadequate.

Inspectors learned of another self-inflicted death at the prison a few weeks after their inspection.

Chelmsford was heavily overcrowded, particularly in the older blocks dating back to the 1830s, and many cells were in a poor state of repair.

The prison was also poor in providing prisoners with purposeful activity, including training and education, with “severely restricted” time out of cell for many prisoners. The majority of staff were inexperienced.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said the increase in violence, the self-inflicted deaths, the ready availability of drugs and the unacceptably poor living conditions led him to seriously consider invoking the Urgent Notification (UN) protocol.

This publicly requires the Secretary of State for Justice to take urgent action to tackle significant problems in a jail and has been invoked four times since the protocol was ratified in November 2017.

However, Mr Clarke added, an important factor when considering whether to invoke a UN was the Inspectorate’s confidence in the prison’s capacity for change and improvement.

He concluded that the acting governor enjoyed the confidence and support of her staff and was receiving “invaluable support” from the recently appointed regional prison group director.

“The support included removing 50 prisoners from the prison, which was an important first step. The senior management team had also been strengthened, and the supervision of officers on the wings was being improved.

"Mentoring and support for the large number of new staff was being introduced. Plans were in place to improve the prison, and their implementation was being addressed sensibly, pragmatically and realistically.”

These governance factors – as well as respectful staff-prisoner relationships and “reasonably good” public protection and resettlement work – persuaded Mr Clarke not to invoke the UN protocol in Chelmsford, which held just under 700 men at the time of the inspection in May and June 2018.

Mr Clarke said: “Leadership at both local and regional level readily acknowledged the gravity of the issues facing the jail, and HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) had already placed the prison in ‘special measures’.

"As long as the leadership of the prison remains consistent, and vital regional-level HMPPS support continues, there is no reason why the very serious problems afflicting the prison cannot be addressed.”