Government blamed amid ‘alarming rise’ in violence at Pentonville Prison

Government neglect has “directly contributed” to an “alarming rise” in violence and drugs at one of the country’s oldest and busiest jails, it is claimed.

The Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at HMP Pentonville has called on Justice Secretary Robert Buckland and prisons minister Lucy Frazer to provide “adequate funds” so improvements can be made “as a matter of urgency”.

It also asked the pair to visit the prison so they could see the conditions for themselves.

The concerns have been raised a week after chief inspector of prisons Peter Clarke warned violence fuelled by gangs, drugs, debt and “volatile young prisoners” has “increased markedly” at the north London jail.

Violence has shot up by more than 50% since 2017. In the last six months there have been 264 assaults on staff and inmates and 61 fights, compared with 196 and 65 respectively during a previous inspection, according to Mr Clarke’s report.

Officers and prisoners were “frequently assaulted”. In March four officers and around 40 prisoners were attacked each week. “Improvised weapons” are being found on an almost daily basis, the IMB said.

It called for more funds for equipment to tackle drugs and carry out searches, saying illegal substances were “pervasive”.

The age of the prison made it “impossible” to install a full body scanner, the report said.

IMB chairman Camilla Poulton said: “Neither Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) nor the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) have given Pentonville the money, care and scrutiny that it needs for years, in the IMB’s opinion.

“An audit revealed that less than half of the skilled Government Facilities Services Limited (formerly Carillion) workforce required to maintain the building to health and safety standards were in place. Other audits, commissioned by the new governor after arriving in August 2018, revealed shortfalls relating to safety, use of force and other issues.

“The board believes this neglect directly contributed to the violence, drugs and self-harm.”

The Victorian jail’s four wings – which are largely unchanged since it was built in 1842 – now hold up to 1,310 adult men, with nearly 10% being under 21.

There are around 33,000 “movements” through the category B prison’s reception every year – making it the busiest in the country, inspectors previously said.

The prison lacked the staff it needed for most of the year, according to the board. But it acknowledged new officers were “doing their best for prisoners”.

Reported incidents of self-harm have increased this year from 500 to 598, the report said.

The IMB also raised concerns about the prevalence of insecticide-resistant cockroaches and mouldy, broken showers.

It said: “Whilst other London prisons have benefited in recent years from additional resources, Pentonville has not.

“It desperately needs money now to raise the standard of day-to-day life for prisoners and staff and deliver its dual function of serving local courts and helping prisoners lead productive lives.”

IMBs are made up of volunteers appointed by justice ministers to scrutinise prison conditions.

The MoJ would not confirm whether ministers were considering visiting the prison but said they would respond to the IMB in writing.

The Prison Service reiterated the Government pledge to spend an extra £100 million on airport-style scanners and mobile phone blocking technology to “boost security and cut violence” in jails.

Pentonville’s new management team had made “significant improvements” in the months since the inspection, a spokesman added.

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Victorian prisons could be sold

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Victorian jails could be closed and sold off to help fund an upgrade of Britain’s “out of date and overcrowded” prison estate, Michael Gove has indicated.

The Government must consider shutting down “ageing and ineffective” city sites and replacing them with new buildings, the Justice Secretary said.

In his first speech on prisons since being appointed in May, Mr Gove also floated the idea of linking an offender’s release date to their academic performance behind bars.

The proposals are part of a drive to cut re-offending rates by improving standards in prisons so that criminals are more prepared for life when they return to society.

Mr Gove said violence towards inmates and staff has risen – driven in part by the increasing availability of designer drugs.

“Unless offenders are kept safe and secure, in decent surroundings, free from violence, disorder and drugs, then we cannot begin to prepare them for a better, more moral, life,” he said.

“Our current prison estate is out of date, overcrowded and in far too many cases, insanitary and inadequate.

“There are many good people working in our prisons today but they are working in conditions which make their commitment to rehabilitation more and more difficult to achieve.”

Measures to improve security are under way, including a trial of new body-scanning equipment to prevent contraband entering prisons, but more must be done, Mr Gove said.

“That’s why I think we have to consider closing down the ageing and ineffective Victorian prisons in our major cities, reducing the crowding and ending the inefficiencies which blight the lives of everyone in them and building new prisons which embody higher standards in every way they operate,” he said.

“The money which could be raised from selling off inner city sites for development would be significant.

“It could be re-invested in a modern prison estate where prisoners do not have to share overcrowded accommodation but also where the dark corners that facilitate bullying, drug-taking and violence could increasingly be designed out.

“By getting the law right, getting operational practice right and getting the right, new, buildings we can significantly improve the security and safety of our prisons.”

No indications of which prisons could face closure, or when, have yet been given.

However, Mr Gove singled out HMP Pentonville, a Victorian institution opened in 1842, as “the most conspicuous, most recent, example of the problem we face”.

He said the prison in north London is supposed to hold 900 inmates but now houses 1300 and referred to inspection findings such as widespread drug-taking, blood-stained walls and piles of rubbish.

“Of course, Pentonville is the most dramatic example of failure within the prison estate, but its problems, while more acute than anywhere else, are very far from unique. Overall, across the prison estate, the number of prisoners in overcrowded cells is increasing,” the minister added.

At the centre of Mr Gove’s approach is a focus on education for prisoners. In his first announcement on prisons earlier this week, he eased the restrictions covering inmates’ access to books.

“The most important transformation I think we need to make is not in the structure of the estate, it’s in the soul of its inmates,” he said.

Arguing that prisons are not playing their part in the “crucial” function of rehabilitating offenders, Mr Gove outlined his support for the concepts of “earned release” for offenders who commit to serious educational activity and attaching privileges to attendance and achievement in learning.

Currently, most offenders serving fixed term sentences are released automatically at the half-way point. Justice officials are set to look at how Mr Gove’s proposals could be implemented in practice in the coming months.

Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, said: “Education for prisoners is an essential ingredient along with other initiatives in tackling offending behaviour and we welcome the announcement by Mr Gove but wait to see the details in the policy as to how it will be achieved.

“We are taking a cautious approach as we have listened to these announcements before over the last 25 years and ultimately it has made no difference. Let us hope Mr Gove’s aspirations are fully funded and resourced appropriately.”

Mark Leech editor of The Prisons Handbook  (http://www.markleech.com) for England and Wales welcomed the announcement.

“Like many others I too have heard these statements before and they have never been translated into practice, that said I welcome the Justice Secretary’s willingness to revisit the plans.”

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?”