HMP Pentonville – huge challenges

HMP Pentonville was very concerning, despite the best efforts of many staff and governors, said Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, publishing the report of an unannounced inspection of the north London local jail.

At the time of the inspection, Pentonville was seriously overcrowded and held 1,236 men, 35% above its certified normal accommodation. More than half the population were held on remand or for short sentences of less than six months. All local prisons hold needy and challenging populations but at Pentonville this was especially so. Eleven per cent of men had been assessed as malnourished when they were admitted to the prison. About half of all the men held were on the caseload of the prison’s drug and alcohol service. The mental health service received about 100 referrals a month. The prison was shortly to start taking remanded young adults who would no longer be held at HMP YOI Feltham.

The staffing reductions the prison was required to make were having a number of serious consequences. A number of staff accepted for voluntary redundancy were still working at the prison; some were disengaged and their attitudes were having a detrimental effect on the prison as a whole. Prison service procedures, which did not take into account the London recruitment market, were making it difficult to fill some critical posts. The prison was operating at well below its agreed staffing levels and the governor was due to move. In the face of all this, inspectors were impressed that in some areas there had been improvements.

Inspectors were pleased to find that:

  • some good systems were in place to tackle antisocial behaviour
  • the very high levels of violence found at the last inspection had reduced, but levels remained slightly higher than in similar prisons
  • first night arrangements had improved
  • support for those most vulnerable to self-harm was good, but the application of some safer custody processes needed to be more consistent;
  • the prison was vigorously combating the supply of drugs and alcohol and support for the large number of prisoners with substance misuse issues was well developed
  • managers had worked hard to improve the personal officer scheme
  • the large number of foreign national prisoners received some good support, but the Home Office’s input on immigration matters was inadequate
  • the quality of teaching mostly good
  • strategic management of resettlement work had improved and the approach was based on a good needs analysis of the population
  • reintegration planning was reasonable, though too many prisoners were being overlooked.

However, inspectors were concerned that:

  • almost half of prisoners said they had felt unsafe in the prison at some time
  • the core day was unpredictable and prisoners were often unlocked late and association cancelled because of staff shortages
  • the segregation unit environment and regime were particularly poor
  • despite the prison’s efforts to combat drugs, positive drug testing results were high
  • the physical conditions were poor and there were vermin infestations
  • prisoners struggled with basic needs such as access to showers
  • while some staff carried out good work, too many were distant and, on occasion, dismissive
  • management of learning and skills had not sufficiently progressed, there were insufficient activity places for the population and those available were not well used; and
  • although good work was being carried out with high risk and indeterminate sentence prisoners, the focus on other groups was less well developed.

Nick Hardwick said:

“Pentonville faces huge challenges and many staff and governors have worked with determination and skill to meet them. At the time of the inspection the prison was going through a particularly difficult time as it made the transition to new staffing levels. Nevertheless, it is clear that Pentonville cannot operate as a modern 21st century prison without investment in its physical condition, adequate staffing levels to manage its complex population and effective support from the centre. It these things cannot be provided, considerations should be given to whether HMP Pentonville has a viable future.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive Officer of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), said:

“I am pleased that the Chief Inspector recognises that progress has been made at Pentonville in important areas despite the challenges inherent in running a large, old prison with a highly transient and challenging population.

“The reduction in violence and the advances in resettlement are particularly noteworthy and the former Governor and staff deserve credit for the progress made.

“At the time of the inspection the prison was transitioning to new staffing profiles and new working arrangements which will provide a decent, consistent and stable regime for prisoners going forward. Pentonville will receive the support it requires to build on the progress made and to address the further recommendations set out in this report.”

Notes to editors

  1. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  2. This unannounced inspection was carried out from 27 August to 6 September 2013.
  3. HMP Pentonville is a local prison holding remand and convicted adult male prisoners.
  4. Please contact Barbara Buchanan on 020 3681 2772 if you would like more information or to request an interview with Nick Hardwick.