Conditions at Pentonville prison deteriorating, says chief inspector

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Nick Hardwick blames ‘failure of management’ at jail where drugs are easily available, cells are filthy, blood-stained, and some inmates are locked up 23 hours a day

Staff at Pentonville prison failed to do anything about bloodstained cells and beds even when inspectors raised concerns with them during an official visit this year, their report has revealed.

Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons, says in the report published today that conditions at the Victorian jail in north London have deteriorated even further since he questioned its future viability at his previous inspection 17 months ago.

The inspectors say they saw new prisoners put into filthy cells with no eating utensils, toiletries or adequate bedding, and being told to clean them up themselves.

Hardwick says violence has almost doubled at Pentonville since his last inspection and conditions for inmates are amongst the poorest in England and Wales. Drugs are easily available, cells are filthy and some inmates are locked up in them for as much as 23 hours a day. More than 1,300 inmates are crammed into cells designed to hold 900.

He blames “a failure of management and leadership” at Pentonville for the very poor standards and poor staff culture at the jail: “The prison needs a firmer grip and a persuasive plan that will ensure immediate deliverable and sustained improvements, as well as a more considered medium-term plan that will determine whether the prison has a future,” he said.

The report of the official inspection carried out in February says the ongoing problems of recruiting staff to work at the prison had an impact on many parts.

“Outside areas were appalling and prisoners complained of an infestation of vermin and cockroaches,” says their report. “Despite a clean-up early in the inspection, some areas remained in a dreadful state, and there were extensive amounts of food debris and piles of clothing on ridges and security wire.”

The inspectors say they saw many dirty cells across many wings of the prison and some cells had windows that would not close leaving them freezing cold: “Empty cells were not routinely prepared for occupation and were often left in a filthy state, with the new occupant expected to clean it. On one occasion we found prisoners located in a cell with blood on the walls and door, and on another occasion with blood on the bunk bed; on neither occasion was the blood cleaned up when we raised our concerns with staff.”

Michael Spurr, the chief executive officer of the national offender management service, visited Pentonville on Friday to review its progress: “The prison was ordered, more stable and much cleaner than previously. The physical conditions remain challenging but we are committed to further developing the regime for prisoners and I am confident when inspectors return next year they will find a much improved prison.”

He said that since the inspection in February a recovery plan had been put in place, staffing levels increased and the management strengthened.

But Mark Leech, editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales said:

“This is only to be expected in a prison system that has seen prison officer numbers in England and Wales cut by over 30 per cent in the last four years, and with £900million – or 24% – cut from its budgets since 2010.

“These cuts coincide with a deepening prison overcrowding crisis and an alarming rise in the number of self-inflicted deaths in custody.

“Pentonville, which operates as a local prison, is struggling to cope with numbers it was never designed to house, in an era it was never intended to see, and with a government and a public who for the most part really couldn’t care less.

“No one expects prisons to be holiday camps and they’re not, but equally would you be happy for your loved one, your father, brother or son, remanded, unconvicted of any crime, to be housed in shocking conditions like this?”

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