HMIP Inspections of Pentonville

The prison was given an inspection in April 2019, 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:

” Built in 1842, Pentonville in north London, is one of the country’s oldest and most famous institutions. A local prison holding up to 1,310 adult men, and largely unchanged structurally in nearly 180 years, Pentonville epitomises the challenges confronting ageing, inner-city prisons with transient populations, many with heightened levels of need and risk.

The general failure to meet the undoubtedly great challenges faced by this prison and those held in it isreflected in our healthy prison assessments. Outcomes in safety were especially poor and had not improved since the last inspection in 2017: only one of the 15 previous recommendations on safety had been achieved in full.

Useful risk assessment processes and peer support were in place to receive new prisoners, but there were no first night checks and some new arrivals were placed in dirty and poorly equipped accommodation. Violence in the prison had increased markedly. It was driven by a variety of factors, including gang affiliations, drugs, debt and a high proportion of relatively more volatile younger prisoners who were given no targeted support. Work to analyse and address violence was inadequate, and it was no surprise that in our survey about a third of prisoners told us they felt unsafe.

In keeping with the level of violence, use of force had increased significantly, yet oversight and accountability were lacking. The small size of the segregation unit limited the number of those held in such conditions, but the segregation environment was rundown. Although the quality of the regime and support had improved to an extent, reintegration planning was not good enough.

The flow and management of intelligence was improving, with good attention to gang issues and corruption. However, drugs remained hugely problematic, with a random drug test positive rate of around 29%. The drug supply reduction strategy had just been rewritten and was not yet implemented, and weaknesses in the physical security of the prison, as well as the ineffective use of technology to combat drugs, required urgent attention.

The amount of self-harm was comparable to similar prisons, but tragically there had been four self-inflicted deaths since our last inspection. Recommendations made by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman following its investigations into the deaths in custody 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. A new safer custody strategy had been prepared, although not yet implemented, and while there was emerging evidence of better management of the area, these improvements needed to be accelerated.

Living conditions for many prisoners were still poor, with many cells overcrowded or badly equipped. Communal areas of the prison were not clean enough. We were encouraged by the prison’s ‘decency programme’, which was a positive attempt to tackle some of the problems, but it was no substitute for the sustained investment that was required to achieve long-term environmental improvements.

The quality of staff-prisoner relationships was not good enough, with only 57% of the prisoners we surveyed saying staff treated them with respect, much lower than at comparable prisons. We 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 and were being given reasonable mentoring and leadership. Consultation with prisoners was sporadic and ineffective but recent initiatives to reinvigorate this channel of communication had begun. Work to promote equality had lapsed until very recently when the Governor had taken some personal responsibility for the relaunch of this work. A visible and valued chaplaincy team, and very good health provision were much more encouraging areas of work. Mental health services were particularly impressive.

The reliability of daily routines had improved in recent months with little evident slippage, although nearly a third of prisoners were locked in cell during the working day. There were enough part-time activity and education places for all prisoners, but despite some recent improvement attendance remained poor. The quality of teaching was generally good and the use of peer supporters was effective, with high achievement among learners on most courses. There had been some improvement to the education on offer to vulnerable prisoners but our colleagues in Ofsted judged the overall effectiveness of education, skills and work across the prison as ‘requires improvement’, their second lowest assessment grade.

The overall strategic approach to rehabilitation work remained weak and uncoordinated despite a needs analysis having been completed. Most eligible prisoners did not have an up-to-date assessment of risk and needs (OASys) and offender management work was too reactive. Prisoners did not receive enough support through their sentence, although staff had appropriately prioritised high-risk and indeterminate sentence cases. Some reasonable work was being done in both public protection and resettlement, but it was inconsistent and this undermined effectiveness.

This inspection found a prison that was delivering weak outcomes for prisoners in most areas and unacceptably poor outcomes in safety. At our last inspection in 2017, we had similar concerns but noted early signs of improvement – evidently a false dawn. It will be no surprise therefore that at this inspection very serious consideration was given to invoking the Inspectorate’s Urgent Notification protocol, although after careful consideration we have decided against taking this step. The relatively new Governor and his senior team, with active support from the 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. 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. Importantly, HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) had ensured a recent influx of new staff to bring the prison close to its full complement – this is self-evidently critical to decent outcomes and, like many other establishments, Pentonville has suffered the consequences of inadequate staffing for far too long.

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.

 Peter Clarke CVO OBE QPM

June 2019

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: