The annual report for 2017 is published today by the Independent Monitoring Board at HMP Pentonville.
With six deaths in custody, including the killing of a prisoner, the escape of two more, and an unofficial strike, Pentonville Prison has had a very challenging year.
The Independent Monitoring Board at Pentonville believes safety – of both staff and prisoners – is paramount, and that these incidents demonstrate serious shortcomings.
Last year’s report sounded the alarm over drones delivering drugs through the dilapidated windows. With only a quarter of the old windows replaced staff and prisoners’ safety remains at risk. And if cells cannot securely contain prisoners, then the safety of the public cannot be assured.
There have been too many violent incidents – 10 assaults on staff a month, including 2 sexual assaults on female staff – with many attacks perpetrated by Young Adults.
Due to the decrepit windows, the volume of throw-overs from the local roads, and some brought in with visitors or possibly by staff, there is undoubtedly a considerable drug problem which puts staff and prisoners at risk from violence associated with unpredictable behaviour caused by reactions to drugs, and bullying over debts.
The prison has more prisoners with psychiatric conditions than any other local prison. A fifth of the population is on anti-psychotic drugs. If self-harm and suicide are to be tackled the seriously mentally ill should not be held in the prison.
The board endorses the findings of the Coroner and the Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) that cell bells are not answered quickly enough and that some prisoners have not been properly risk assessed on arrival at prison. Implementing the PPO and Coroner’s reports is not negotiable. But without more officers and competent nurses there could be more needless deaths.
Pentonville is overcrowded; holding 380 more men than the Prison Service deems it suitable for. Confining two men in a cell measuring 12 feet by 8 feet is not humane. One has to eat his meal in the cell while the other may be sitting on a badly screened toilet a few feet away.
Aspects of the physical environment are squalid with blocked toilets, leaking sewage, and broken facilities meaning prisoners regularly go without showers, clean clothes and hot food.
The prison struggles to ensure the basics of decency largely due to the outsourced provider responsible for maintenance – Carillion. The company’s lack of responsiveness even when confronted with urgent situations and the long (6-month) backlog of jobs outstanding has meant Carillion’s failings were raised in nearly every one of the board’s monthly meetings.
This board agrees with IMBs across the prison estate that Carillion is failing. The contract is working neither for Pentonville nor the taxpayer.
REHABILITATION IS TREMENDOUSLY DIFFICULT
Pentonville is hampered by inefficient and sometimes ineffective systems. For example, prisoners regularly arrive from court with scant information – virtually none if they were previously in a private prison – meaning staff have little to go on in assessing the risk they pose to themselves and others. More than a thousand visitors this year were refused entry after receiving misleading advice from the telephone booking service. Transfer of prisoners’ property from other establishments is slow or never happens.
There are insufficient staff to allow for a predictable regime, resulting in far too many lockdowns where purposeful activities are cancelled, as evidenced by an education and work attendance rate of 65-70%. However the number of places for purposeful activity has increased by 200 to 900, and when prisoners can get to work they benefit from new courses including painting and decorating, woodwork, a recycling shop and barista training. Notwithstanding this, those housed in the vulnerable prisoners unit feel that their choices are too restricted.
The huge churn – two thirds of prisoners are held for three months or less – means that rehabilitation is tremendously difficult. It is unfair that many prisoners requiring specific programmes in order to be released cannot get started at Pentonville. And it is not the right environment for very challenging programmes. This means that those convicted of serious offences, including men Imprisoned for Public Protection and beyond tariff, must transfer before they can start to prove they are fit for release.
The board’s report welcomes the many improvements that have been made – some prompted by the security problems over the year: the installation of anti-drone technology, dogs being reinstated, use of metal detection portals, Body Worn Video Cameras for all uniformed staff, and improved monitoring and physical security around the perimeter walls and exercise yards. The Governor’s focus on cleanliness and a message of hope for prisoners has discernibly raised standards and encouraged both staff and prisoners.
The year overall has been tumultuous for Pentonville staff and the toughest test of their careers, for some. The board recognises their courage and professionalism.