HMIP Inspections of Pentonville

The prison was given an inspection in October/November 2020 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:

This report discusses the findings from a scrutiny visit (SV) to HMP Pentonville. The SV methodology develops the ‘short scrutiny visit’ (SSV, see Glossary of terms) approach that HMI Prisons used to provide independent oversight of custodial establishments from April to July 2020. Our previous approach monitored outcomes for prisoners in a small number of key areas at a time when regimes were severely restricted in all prisons. While SVs are still more limited in scope than our full inspections, they increase the intensity of scrutiny. SVs examine the treatment and conditions of prisoners in greater detail and focus in particular on the pace of recovery and proportionality of treatment, while ensuring the safest possible inspection practices.

HMP Pentonville is in north London and is one of the country’s oldest and most famous institutions. It is largely unchanged structurally in nearly 180 years and epitomises the challenges confronting ageing, inner-city prisons with transient populations with varied needs.

Pentonville was already an institution of significant concern before the pandemic. This was reflected in poor findings at the previous full inspection in April 2019 and a subsequent independent review of progress in February 2020. At this scrutiny visit, it was pleasing to find that there had been some tangible, if fragile, progress. To the prison’s credit, it had continued to focus on the key priorities we had set out at the last inspection, while managing the additional problems created by COVID-19. At the start of the pandemic, the prison had suffered some deaths among staff. At the time of our visit, there were no confirmed staff or prisoner cases.

 The prison’s age and design limited the degree to which it could provide decent accommodation. Despite a small reduction in population and the recent arrival of some detached duty staff, the prison remained overcrowded and under-staffed. Social distancing was all but impossible in some areas and we saw few attempts by staff to socially distance even where it was achievable. Prisoners had cooperated with the extreme restrictions. Many continued to feel unsafe and were acutely aware of the risks of infection being brought into the prison community from outside.

The busy reception was well organised and procedures were in place to ensure a safe flow of people through the area. COVID-19 testing was now routinely offered to all arriving prisoners and was about to start for staff. Cohorting arrangements appeared to be effective, with prisoners unlocked in groups based on when they arrived. Time out of cell was very limited, and provision of showers and exercise was inconsistent.

 In our survey, 32% of prisoners said they felt unsafe and 40% that they were victimised by staff. We were surprised to find that the basic level of the incentives policy had been maintained for low-level transgressions, including limits on spending ability and occasional withdrawal of televisions. Given the already very restricted regime, this was unjustifiably punitive.

The level of violence was slightly lower than before the restricted regime, though with a few significant spikes in incidents. Use of force had similarly fluctuated and we were pleased to see that governance of use of force had improved significantly since our last inspection. Data were being collected more routinely, but trend analysis and subsequent actions remained limited in many areas, including violence, use of force and segregation.

Self-harm had increased in the months since the restricted regime had started and there had been four self-inflicted deaths since our last full inspection. The prison was attempting to address a large number of outstanding Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) recommendations, but some critical concerns had still not been effectively resolved, including slow responses to emergency cell bells and inconsistent management of assessment, care in custody and teamwork (ACCT) case management of prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm. However, we were pleased to find that the  Listener scheme was operating well and had been sustained throughout the pandemic with support from the Samaritans. This was a significant achievement.

Staff were appreciative of the good communication and visible leadership in the prison. We heard from many staff that there was a greater sense of common purpose than in the past. However, outcomes for prisoners had so far improved little. We observed many interactions between staff and prisoners that were professional, good-natured and supportive, but we also saw staff being dismissive, unhelpful and, in one case, verbally abusive. While there was an obvious commitment to address such behaviour, this challenge required continuing focus.

Managers were attempting to address the deteriorating physical conditions in the prison and poor state of many cells. The pressure on spaces made this a difficult task. One wing had been closed for redecoration, another landing had been redecorated and funding had been obtained to refurbish the many showers that were dirty, mouldy and unfit for use. The communal areas of the prison were kept reasonably clean and prisoners were employed to sanitise high-u se areas throughout the day. However, it was concerning that prisoners often could not obtain cleaning materials for their cells and that, unless they were in full-time work, they could not shower every day. Meals were served very early, with the evening meal serving starting as early as 3.30pm.

Strategic oversight of equality work had recently resumed. Data were being used to understand areas of over-representation, but there were few subsequent actions. A key concern was the inadequate treatment and conditions for prisoners with disabilities. The layout of Pentonville prevented sufficient access to facilities and some prisoners, especially wheelchair users, could not go outside. This was wholly unacceptable. The use of interpreting was also poor, undermining the care of the large population of foreign national prisoners. The introduction of a bespoke intervention programme (‘Time4Change’) was a positive development aimed at younger prisoners who were over-represented in discipline statistics. The chaplaincy had provided excellent support to prisoners throughout the pandemic, visiting each individual prisoner at least once a week, which was impressive.

Health care was reasonable and medicines administration was safe. However, demand was high, the provision was stretched and many prisoners complained about both access and quality. Waiting times for most health services were reasonable, but there were shortcomings in the appointments system. Over half the prisoners in our survey said they had mental health problems and waits for primary mental health support had increased.

A consistent regime was provided for most, but it was very limited for prisoners who were not in work. Unemployed prisoners generally had no more than 45 minutes a day out of their cells, and we received many comments about the impact of such confinement on prisoners’ health and wellbeing. The prison had maintained some workshops with reduced attendance to maintain social distancing, and it was positive that about a quarter of prisoners were in some form of employment. In-cell activity was generally of good quality.

Family support work had been good and the reintroduction of visits had been managed well, with sensible and proportionate supervision. Take up remained low and less than a fifth of prisoners said they had seen their families in person or via video-calling in the previous month. In-cell telephones were a great help to prisoners locked up for long periods.

Sentence planning and risk assessment processes were up to date and the prison had worked hard to reduce the offender assessment system (OASys) backlog. Some risk management procedures were not working effectively. Prisoners were often frustrated at not being able to access relevant offender management staff or pre-release support. It was particularly concerning that more than half the prisoners released in the previous six months had not had settled accommodation and about 14% of these were released with no fixed abode.

Managers, staff and prisoners at Pentonville had shown resilience in managing the demands of the pandemic in an institution with many pre-existing problems. There were signs that the pandemic had focused the minds of staff and that the positive direction that the governor and senior management team had set was starting to have an effect. Prisoners already faced a challenging prison environment, and the high levels of mental health need reflected the additional negative impact of the pandemic. A sustained focus on our recommendations will be essential if the deep-rooted problems facing the prison are to be overcome.

Charlie Taylor
HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
November 2020

Return to Pentonville

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