Stop just locking prisoners up – rehabilitate them, says IMB at HMP Pentonville

The Independent Monitoring Board at HMP Pentonville presents their annual report for 2018.

Overcrowded, inhumane conditions; crumbling surroundings where vermin (fleas, cockroaches, mice) are rife; prisoners unable to work, learn or take exercise.

A picture of Pentonville, 175 years after the prison was built, and in the year the Government shelved plans to shut it – and other Victorian jails – down. By a number of measures the lack of investment – in prison officers and buildings – is evident:

  • drug test failures exceeded the target (12%) in every month of the year;
  • 114 violent incidents (Jan ‘18); 17 assaults on staff (Mar ‘18);
  • 500 incidents of self-harm (to year end Mar ‘18).

With 1200 men living in a building certified to hold 900, it’s hard to avoid the sense that Pentonville is containing men, not rehabilitating them.

There are too many young people, men with serious mental health problems, and designated vulnerable prisoners – with complex needs – for a prison with main functions of remand (to serve the local courts) and resettlement.

Committed and energetic staff do their best, but there were insufficient prison officers for most of the year. Activities and association time were routinely restricted, with some prisoners going weeks without exercise in the fresh air.

Education attendance was poor (50% down from 60% last year). Vocational training saw an even bigger drop from 65% to 45%.  Despite this, new training initiatives such as Liberty Kitchen were popular and the prison continues to win literacy awards.  Access to both healthcare (clinic) and daycare (mental health activities) were also curtailed due to shutdowns.

For the first time, the prison tried to keep a full account of the daily regime delivered – recording how often prisoners were released for activities, including exercise, or locked in their cells – but still did not have an accurate working system in place at the end of the year.

Regular searches for contraband – to which tobacco was added this year – often resulted in security lockdowns, leading to less time out of cells and cancelled activities.

In fact the jail remains porous to the trafficking of drugs, mobile phones and weapons in large part due to dilapidated windows. Only a quarter have been replaced since the 2016 homicide when the Prison Service recommended that all windows should be sealed so that contraband can’t get in. Not a single external window grille was replaced either, despite a Prison Service recommendation to that effect following the 2016 double escape, leading to a dozen cells being declared out of action due to the risk.

There are too few telephones for prisoners, which disrupts vital links to family and friends. And phones are regularly out of action – more than a third were found to be broken by a prison survey. So it’s not hard to see why mobile phones are in such high demand.

Carillion failed at maintenance – slow, expensive, sometimes clueless.  The impact on prisoners was real – stinking showers, backed up toilets and cold dinners. Then Carillion failed as a company. This after repeated warnings for at least 2 years from the IMB (and others) that the contract was not working for Pentonville.  There is no evidence yet of improved efficiency in maintenance by the Crown-operated Government Facilities Service, but it is early days.

The Independent Monitoring Board at Pentonville calls upon the Government to:

  • invest in prison officers and the safety and fabric of the building;
  • reduce overcrowding by bringing the prison’s population nearer to the certified accommodation level (909);
  • provide a clear strategy, and resources, to rehabilitate young offenders in remand prisons; and
  • enable Pentonville to function effectively as a resettlement prison.


Read the report in full here.