HMP Pentonville – Poor safety and weaknesses across all areas but management starting to get a grip on problems

HMP Pentonville, one of the country’s oldest and busiest prisons, was found by inspectors to be failing to meet the “undoubtedly great challenges” it faces, with safety assessed as particularly poor.

However, Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, stopped short of invoking the rarely-used Urgent Notification (UN) protocol, which is designed to bring prisons with significant failings directly and publicly to the attention of the Secretary of State.

Mr Clarke considered, but rejected, a UN at Pentonville at the inspection in April 2019 because, he said, the relatively new governor and his senior team, with active support from the (Prison) Group Director, appeared finally to be getting to grips with longstanding problems.

“We found no denial of the gravity of the prison’s situation, and there was a clear recognition of the scale of the work to be done.”

The problems were clear and serious. Built in 1842, and largely unchanged structurally since, Pentonville holds up to 1,310 adult men. It epitomises the challenges confronting ageing, inner-city prisons with transient populations, many with heightened levels of need and risk.

Mr Clarke said that “the general failure to meet the undoubtedly great challenges faced by this prison and those held in it is reflected in our healthy prison assessments.” Safety was poor, and respect, purposeful activity and rehabilitation and release planning were all not sufficiently good.

Violence had increased markedly, by more than 50% since 2017, driven by gang affiliations, drugs, debt and a high proportion of relatively more volatile younger prisoners who were given no targeted support. A third of prisoners said they felt unsafe.

Use of force by staff had increased significantly, yet oversight and accountability were lacking. There was good attention to gang issues and staff corruption but drugs remained hugely problematic, with a random drug test positive rate of around 29%. There were weaknesses in the physical security of the prison and ineffective use of technology to detect illicit items coming in.

There had been four self-inflicted deaths since 2017. Recommendations by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman following investigations had been implemented well in relation to health care but less so by the rest of the prison. Case management support (ACCT) for those in crisis was poor. Living conditions for many prisoners were still poor, with many cells overcrowded or badly equipped.

Only 57% of the prisoners surveyed said staff treated them with respect, much lower than at comparable prisons. Inspectors received several reports suggesting a poor attitude among some staff, and there was evidence of some deep-rooted cultural problems that obstructed positive work with prisoners. Many staff were inexperienced, though they were being given reasonable mentoring and leadership.

Daily routines were more reliable but nearly a third of prisoners were locked in cell during the working day. Inspectors were concerned that 95% of prisoners under the age of 22 said they usually spent less than two hours per day out of their cells during the week. There were enough part-time activity and education places for all prisoners, but despite some recent improvement attendance remained poor. The overall strategic approach to rehabilitation work remained weak.

Mr Clarke said that inspectors in 2017 had raised similar concerns to those in 2019 but noted, then, early signs of improvement. This, though, was “evidently a false dawn.”

He gave “very serious consideration” to invoking an Urgent Notification but, he added, “managers and many staff at all levels throughout the prison told us they were committed to the changes that were underway and expressed confidence in the leadership of the establishment.” HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) had ensured a recent influx of new staff.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“We left the prison with no illusions about the scale of the task ahead and with ongoing concerns about decency and safety for prisoners. The depressing cycle of promise and further decline cannot be allowed to continue. Managers appeared to be working together to bring about the changes that were needed. Indeed, many told us that within 12 months the prison would be vastly improved. We will test the reality of this claim through an independent review of progress (IRP), which will be followed in due course by a full unannounced inspection.”

Phil Copple, HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) Director General for Prisons, said:

“We are under no illusions as to the scale of the challenge at HMP Pentonville, but I share the inspectors’ confidence in this management team and fully expect to see real improvements. A new drugs strategy has been introduced at the prison to combine more cell searches with better addiction treatment, while a scanner to intercept illicit items in mail has been deployed. We are investing an extra £100m to boost security and safety across the estate to stop drugs, weapons and mobile phones getting in so we can protect staff, cut violence, and rehabilitate offenders.”

 Notable features from this inspection

  • Nearly 900 new receptions over the previous six months
  • 23% of prisoners are on remand
  • Nearly 10% of prisoners are under 21
  • 21% of prisoners are foreign nationals
  • 57% of prisoners are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
  • 600 prisoners released into the community in the last six months.
  • 25% of prisoners were receiving psychosocial support for substance misuse at the time of inspection.
  • 213 prisoners released on home detention curfew in the previous six months

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