HMIP Inspections of Pentonville

The prison was given an inspection in early 2015, the full report can be read at the Ministry of Justice web site, just follow the links below. In their latest report the inspectors said:

“HMP Pentonville is a large, overcrowded Victorian local prison in London, holding over 1,200 adults and young adult men at the time of the inspection. It continues to hold some of the most demanding and needy prisoners and this, combined with a rapid turnover and over 100 new prisoners a week, presents some enormous challenges.

When we last visited, only 17 months ago, the prison was performing poorly and we were concerned that it was struggling to meet the challenges it faced. At this inspection our fears were confirmed: we found that outcomes for prisoners had deteriorated further and were poor in all but one of our healthy prison tests. Continuing high levels of staff sickness and ongoing problems with recruitment meant the prison was running below its agreed staffing level and this was having an impact on many areas.

Prisoners’ early experiences were characterised by difficulties in getting even their most basic needs met – we saw new prisoners located in filthy cells with no eating utensils, toiletries or adequate bedding. Most prisoners felt unsafe; levels of violence were much higher than in similar prisons and had almost doubled since the last inspection. The prison was working hard to combat violence and was starting to manage their relatively new young adult population – who presented some significant control and gang issues – well. However, staff supervision was often poor and more consultation with prisoners was required to understand the issues which caused violence and to take action to make the prison safer. With such a high number of violent incidents it was not surprising that the number of incidents where staff had to use force and the number of adjudications had also increased.

Prisoners told us drugs were easily available and the positive drug testing rate was high even though too few prisoners were tested. The treatment and care for prisoners with drug and alcohol issues was good.

The prison remained very overcrowded and the poor physical environment was intensified by some extremely dirty conditions. Inspectors were shocked to see extensive mounds of rubbish outside wings, and filthy cells and shower areas. Clearly some areas had not been cleaned for a considerable time and remained dirty for much of the inspection. Many men shared very small and cramped cells designed for one and too often the cells had little furniture, extensive graffiti and broken windows. Prisoners struggled to gain daily access to showers, and to obtain enough clean clothing, cleaning materials and eating utensils.

Prisoners’ perceptions of staff were poor. Some prisoners spoke about very helpful staff, but most described distant relationships with staff and were frustrated by their inability to get things done. We witnessed some indifferent responses to prisoners in need and some irresponsible behaviour. Equality provision was very mixed. There had been some significant improvements in support and care for the substantial foreign national population. Support for Gypsy, Romany and Travellers was good and specific provision for young adults was underway. However, too little was being done to understand and meet the needs of the large black and minority ethnic population, disabled prisoners and older prisoners.

Prisoners remained dissatisfied with health care provision but we found that services had mostly improved with reduced waiting times, a suitable range of primary care services and some very good secondary mental health and inpatient care.

The prison continued to experience considerable problems in delivering an adequate working day and sufficient time unlocked. Prisoners’ movements on and off wings to go to work and other activities were poorly monitored and organised, and some prisoners just did not get to where they were supposed to go. Prisoners had little time unlocked with the majority experiencing under six hours out of their cells each day, and some as little as one hour.

The delivery of learning and skills and work was inadequate. In spite of some improvements since the previous inspection, the quality and quantity of learning and skills and work had not improved enough. Little had been done to increase the engagement of prisoners in purposeful activity, which remained poor. There were still not enough education, training or work places for the population even if prisoners worked part-time, and the situation was compounded by poor utilisation of available places, leaving over 300 prisoners unemployed and only a quarter of the population engaged in purposeful activity at any one time. A new education and vocational training provider had taken over as the contractor a week before the inspection, but needed to improve. A quality improvement plan was in place but too many actions were not yet working or were in an early stage of implementation. Because of staff shortages, prisoners struggled to get access to the library and gymnasium.

Acute staff shortages had undermined the delivery of offender management which was very poor. Far too many prisoners, including those presenting a high risk of harm, were without an offender supervisor, sentence plan or risk management plan. Prisoners were categorised and transferred relatively swiftly but in the absence of a sentence plan many were transferred to any available prison rather than a prison where their offending needs would be met. The demand for resettlement services was high with over 40 prisoners released into the community each week. All prisoners were screened on arrival to identify their resettlement needs and to make necessary referrals. The quality of resettlement services was very mixed. Despite some very proactive support around housing and accommodation, the proportion of prisoners released without accommodation had increased sharply since the previous inspection, from 10% to 15%. This reflected the national decrease in the availability of accommodation for prisoners on release. There was some excellent support for children and families and for prisoners with substance misuse problems, but not enough was being done to help prisoners with debt problems or to help them into work, training or education on release.

At the end of the last inspection we noted that Pentonville was struggling and without investment in its physical condition, adequate staffing levels to manage its complex population, and effective support from the centre, consideration should be given to whether it has a viable future. We understand that plans for renovating and improving the physical environment have been prepared, but at the time of this most recent inspection, the prison had deteriorated even further. Notwithstanding the need for investment, the very poor standards we observed – some of which were put right during the inspection when we demanded it – and the poor staff culture, evidenced, in our view, a failure of management and leadership. 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. 

Nick Hardwick June 2015

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons”

Return to Pentonville

To read the full reports, go to the Ministry of Justice site or follow the links below: