Harsh conditions at Pentonville Prison lead to calls for its closure

As it stands now, Pentonville ‘cannot operate as a modern 21st century prison’

 Prisoners at Pentonville walk through an atrium –  “Considerations should be given to whether HMP Pentonville has a viable future,” said chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick  after a recent 10-day visit. Photograph: Getty

Prisoners at Pentonville walk through an atrium – “Considerations should be given to whether HMP Pentonville has a viable future,” said chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick after a recent 10-day visit. Photograph: Getty

Fri, Feb 21, 2014, 01:00

Singer Pete Doherty spent four nights in Pentonville Prison on the Caledonian Road in 2005, describing it later in song as “rough, wicked and hard”, a place that hosted nations, including “poorly paid people” in “the Irish gang”.

Nine years later, Pentonville is struggling. The north London prison “cannot operate as a modern 21st century prison” without refurbished buildings, extra staffing and greater help from the Prison Service.

“If these things cannot be provided, considerations should be given to whether HMP Pentonville has a viable future,”chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick said after a 10-day unannounced visit.

On average, 19 prisoners harm themselves every month. Nearly half told Hardwick that they had felt unsafe at some point in Pentonville. A quarter were scared on the day they were questioned.

The prison, opened in 1842, is “seriously overcrowded”. Nearly 1,300 men are held in “shared, small, dirty, badly ventilated, single cells with broken furniture and, in some cases, broken windows.

“Physical conditions were poor. The prison had significant, easily visible vermin infestations,” the report went on, adding: “Prisoners struggled with basic needs such as access to showers, telephones and cleaning materials.”

Local councillor Greg Fox- smith, a defence lawyer, said: “Everyone who lives or works in Islington should be shamed by the barbaric, overcrowded, vermin-infested institution of Pentonville Prison. Politicians who pander to the tabloid myth of prison as a ‘holiday-camp’ should read [this report].”

The situation is likely to get worse, since Pentonville is soon to start taking in young men held on remand in Feltham Young Offenders Institute – a place once described as “the scariest” in Britain.

Meanwhile, Pentonville is losing staff because of cuts. Some staff have been told that they can go, but not yet.

“Some of them were disengaged and hostile and their attitudes were having a detrimental effect on the prison as a whole,” Hardwick said.

Some jobs cannot be filled because pay rates are not good enough to attract staff into high-priced London or to compete with higher rates elsewhere in the city. Meanwhile, “sickness and absence levels were high”, the inquiry found.

A third of the inmates are foreign nationals. A prison offi- cer is in place to care for them, but he has never received any training. In any event, he ends up on other duties on nearly half of his shifts because the prison is so short-staffed.

Too often, Hardwick found, Pentonville houses illegal immigrants before they are deported, rather than in immi- gration removal centres where the regime is more relaxed.

In some cases, prisoners who had been jailed for criminal offences found out a day before they were due for release that they were to continue to be held on Home Office orders on immigration grounds.

“We witnessed one such incident during the inspection,” Hardwick notes laconically, before adding: “This could cause considerable unnecessary distress.”

Suspected illegal immigrants get “poor access” to lawyers, while a charity, the Detention Advisory Service, used to visit Pentonville, but is no longer able to do so because of funding troubles.

The atmosphere on the landings is far from Porridge joviality: “The pressures created obvious tensions. While we saw some staff carry out good work, too many were distant and, on occasion, dismissive.”

Sometimes, the problems highlight the way in which time can drag inside, with numerous complaints about the time meals are served. Breakfast packs are handed out to prisoners the night before.

Some prisoners are able to spend over 11 hours each day outside of their cell. For others, they are locked up for all bar 3½ hours. In some cases, warders did not know how many prisoners were on their wing.

The lack of knowledge about prisoners’ whereabouts has unusual consequences, since resettlement officers – tasked with ensuring that prisoners settle into life outside and do not get convicted again – sometimes cannot find them.

Although much effort has gone into improving matters, a tenth of those released from Pentonville were discharged with no place to go “which was too high, but fewer than at our last inspection”, which dramatically affects reoffending rates.

Despite the difficulties, efforts have been made on numerous scores to improve matters. Wives, partners and children are looked after by volunteers from a children’s charity, Spurgeons.

Too often, however, valuable minutes in the “bright and reasonably clean” visiting rooms can be lost because it takes warders “too long to register visitors, who frequently lost up to 40 minutes of their visiting time”.

Following 10 days inside Pentonville, Hardwick tried hard to be fair. It was “characterised by instability and faced some significant challenges”, particularly because of the staff it has had to shed to stay within budget.