The Annual Report for 2016 is published today by the Independent Monitoring Board at HMP Pentonville.
Knock down Pentonville and start again, or urgently upgrade the decrepit, 174 year-old building if the new threats plaguing prisons up and down the land – ‘Spice’ and drones – are to be tackled.
That’s the stark message being delivered to the new Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, by the Victorian prison’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB).
Staff routinely intercept parcels being thrown over walls, but criminal gangs have successfully exploited the shoddy state of the prison’s windows by sending small, near-silent drones – which can be steered to window sills – with payloads of drugs, mobile phones, and other contraband, according to the Annual Report, published today.
Members of the board report seeing prisoners collapse after taking Spice (also known as New Psychoactive Substances) prompting prison officers and teams of healthcare staff to rush to their aid.
The report says: “Spice is driving a whole illicit economy, violence, self-harm and bullying. Pentonville’s security team works with the police and use drugs dogs to make every effort to stop Spice and other contraband getting in. But it is like holding a hand up against the incoming tide, when dilapidated windows in this ancient building make most parts of it porous.”
The report calls for the windows on the most exposed aspects of the prison to be replaced immediately while pointing out that plans to do so have been in place for two years: “Only 10 windows have been replaced. And not 10 of the worst because the glazing units were the wrong size. 100 more are supposed to follow. Everyone is waiting.”
Outsourced procurement and buildings maintenance firm Carillion have repeatedly failed to respond on time to jobs, according to the board, leaving cells out of action for days; chronic shortages of basic kit (towels, toothbrushes and soap); and a lift for wheelchair access to the visits hall out of action for 6 months.
“This is distressing for prisoners and families and frustrating for staff. The Board doubt that a problem with wheelchair access to the Ministry of Justice would be allowed to languish for 6 months.”
The North London prison’s population – of about 1290 inmates, including 120 Young Adults and 300 foreign nationals – has 40% more prisoners than the Prison Service’s own measure of ‘uncrowded capacity’.
Overcrowding coupled with a shortage of prison officers regularly leads to ‘temporary regimes’ in which safe staff-prisoner ratios can only be achieved by confining inmates to their cells. This means prisoners can’t get to basic education, vocational workshops or the library. So while board members welcome efforts to increase provision for such ‘purposeful activity’ – they note that library visits are down and educational attendance rates were just 56% in the last year.
Furthermore, staff shortages result in a litany of other problems: on-site and external healthcare appointments missed; drug tests curtailed in the ‘drug free’ Jubilee Wing; prisoners going without showers or unable to phone their families; and, extraordinarily, mental health assessments sometimes taking place through the locked doors of cells.
However despite these challenges, the report shows that Pentonville has bucked the national trend of increases in violent incidents with a modest, but encouraging, reduction in the period 2015-16 of 847 compared to 870 the previous year.
Staff morale has taken a battering over several years due to a combination of factors, not least poor annual reports, and a lack of investment from Government. But November’s announcement that nine new prisons would be built and “ageing and ineffective” Victorian prisons would be closed did not help matters, according to the report.
Although Pentonville has benefitted from the welcome transfer of a number of staff from the former women’s prison HMP Holloway, board members say more staff is not in itself enough: “The condition of this 174-year old prison is poor and nothing short of a massive injection of capital will improve the conditions for any but a handful of prisoners.”
- Listen to Pentonville IMB chair interview on the BBC radio Lonon Vanessa Feltz show – starts at 38 minutes into the programme. Available until 30 August 2016.
- Pentonville IMB annual report