Inmates at Leicester prison find it easier to get their hands on drugs and alcohol than basic toiletries and a change of clothes, according to a stinging inspection report.

Levels of violence are also on the rise at the “shabby” Victorian Welford Road jail, according to the Government’s official inspection body.

Published today, it paints a grim picture of life behind the walls following an unannounced visit last autumn.

As inspectors moved through the building during their week-long visit, they drew up a disturbing list of criticisms – from the easy availability of alcohol and drugs to the poor supervision of prisoners deemed to be a risk to themselves.

The physical condition of the building was also highlighted, with some areas recommended for closure until improvements are made.

Despite the efforts of staff, today’s report makes uncomfortable reading for the prison as most of the recommendations for improvements had been put to it following its previous inspection, in November 2013.

In fact, the inspectors said conditions have deteriorated since then.

Consistently named as one of the most overcrowded in the UK, it housed 325 inmates – 50 per cent more than it should – at the time of the inspection.

At the time of the inspection, the prison was holding 33 foreign nationals, including four who had served their sentences but were awaiting removal from the UK.

Because of a lack of interpretation services, those who could not speak English were “isolated and confused”.

Report author Martin Lomas, deputy chief inspector of prisons, said: “This is a poor report.

“We found pockets where the prison was operating more effectively, but much of what we inspected had deteriorated.

“There were few meaningful plans to effect progress and we could discern no determination of priorities.”

The report highlighted the easy availability of drugs, particularly legal highs, and alcohol.

A survey answered by 144 of the 350 inmates found 56 per cent said it was easy to obtain drugs, while 31 per cent said the same of alcohol.

Fourteen per cent said they had developed a drug problem since arriving at the prison.

Inspectors were concerned by the rising level of violence within the prison, noting there had been 75 assaults and 23 fights in the previous six months.

They were also shocked by the high number prisoners harming themselves – 237 in the previous six months.

In the past three years, they said there had been three deaths, including two suspected suicides.

The quality of support for prisoners at risk of suicide and self-harm was inconsistent.

The segregation unit, which is reserved for the most disruptive or violent prisoners, was described variously as “appalling”, “terrible” and “cold, damp and decrepit” and should be closed immediately.

Similarly, the reception area, despite the efforts of the welcoming staff, was said to be grim.

Day to day, prisoners struggled to get hold of even the most basic necessities, such as toiletries and a regular change of clothes and bedding.

Basic security measures were poor, with inspectors discovering staff sometimes did not know prisoners’ whereabouts or who was occupying a cell. Some prisoners, the report said, were spending up to 22 hours in their cells and attendance at education classes or employment training – despite the quality of the teaching – was poor.

However, there were some compliments.

Overall, support for drug-addicted inmates was good and 80 per cent of prisoners felt staff treated them fairly and with respect.

Efforts to prepare those facing release to the community were also improving.

The report prompted a stinging response from leading prison reform groups – coming two weeks after Prime Minister David Cameron signalled a shake-up of the prison system.

Michael Spurr, chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, said: “This is a disappointing report. Leicester’s performance has deteriorated unacceptably and this cannot be allowed to continue.

“A new governor has been appointed who will provide the leadership required to rapidly drive improvement.

“The inspector reports positively on the relationship between staff and prisoners.

“This is crucial for a prison to be successful and provides the new Governor with a solid foundation to achieve the progress needed.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Leicester’s report is an example of how ageing prisons need reform.

“We take our duty of care to staff and prisoners extremely seriously and tackling violence and drugs must be a priority.

“We will be investing £1.3 billion to transform the prison estate over the next five years, to better support rehabilitation and tackle bullying, violence and drugs.”

Prime Minister David Cameron has acknowledged widespread failings across the prison system.

In a speech this month, Mr Cameron promised a series of reforms which, he said, would improvement inmates’ conditions, reduce reoffending rates and protect the community.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “Shabby, overcrowded, violent and grim, this report reveals just how far HMP Leicester has to go to meet the Prime Minister’s reform agenda.

“The inspectorate’s findings show a prison that has lost its way and struggling to meet even basic standards of safety and decency.

“Why does it take a report like this before action is taken?”

Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This report sets out in stark detail the catastrophic impact of overcrowding in prisons.

“Violence is rife. Prisoners can get alcohol and legal highs easily, but they cannot get the basics, such as toiletries, clean clothes and bedding.

“Leicester is an old prison, built in the Victorian era, but the building alone is not to blame.

“A new prison overcrowded to this extent would have the same problems.

“We cannot go on cramming more people into jails without any thought for the consequences.

“The Prime Minister has recognised prisons are failing and wholesale reform is needed.

“It is time for the Government to deliver on that promise as conditions are getting worse by the day.”