Unsung Covid heroes work at Pentonville, say the IMB, despite dire conditions and a lack of promised investment.

Prison staff responded courageously to Covid-19; two colleagues tragically lost their lives while seeking to protect and support the prisoners. This followed a troubled year with increasing levels of assault and self-harm, high use of force, six deaths, atrocious living conditions and little evidence of promised government money.  

 

Yet Pentonville IMB in their Annual Report (April 2019 – March 2020) note impressive achievements in this Victorian gaol:

  • The Well-Being Centre, a therapeutic day service for those with serious mental health problems, received the Royal College of GPs National Award for Best Team in Clinical Services.
  • Key-working, where officers deliver one to one support to prisoners, was re-introduced by the new Governor in January 2020, overcoming staff shortages.
  • Drama, debate, creative arts and university student/prisoner partnerships flourished, while for the first time here, an inspirational programme met the particular needs of young adults.

 

The Pentonville IMB Co Chair, Barry Baker, said:

 

“Pentonville was under extreme pressure last year. Prisoners, many with serious mental health problems, passed through its doors about 33,000 times. Hand-made weapons were rife and assaults on staff increased by 30% in ten months. Little over half the prisoners got to work or education. The government-appointed contractor failed to deal with broken lifts, faulty toilets and plumbing, pests and even minor repairs for months. Disabled prisoners told us they could not exercise outside or get to see their families. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly self-harm increased by 14%.

“The response of Government and the Prison Service was unacceptable. Investment they said was urgent months or even years ago was not delivered. These included funds for Pentonville’s decaying infrastructure, also insecure windows which allow contraband to pass, and a body scanner to improve security. Five dog handlers were allocated, but only one turned up, irregularly. Body-worn cameras often broke down. One prisoner was in isolation for five months, waiting for the Prison Service to facilitate his transfer.

“But there is hope here. Strong leadership from the current Governor, together with energetic managers and dedicated staff, were making an impact on drugs, assaults and cleanliness by March 2020. The response to the pandemic was fast and thorough. Investment, when it came, was a game-changer: In-cell telephony was delivered just in time to facilitate contact with family and friends during Lockdown. Call charges were reduced and, in response to the pandemic, the Governor put £5 into each prisoner’s telephone account weekly.

“Change driven from within can only be sustained if it has timely support, through action not words, from the Government and the Prison Service. Pentonville should not be characterised by the danger, despair and decay we saw too often over the last year.”