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Pentonville prison neighbours: ‘We feel unsafe in shadow of jail’

10:28 29 November 2016

Vittorio Tempesta points out the HMP Pentonville cell windows that he suspects are used to smuggle contraband into the prison from the street. Picture: Polly Hancock

Vittorio Tempesta points out the HMP Pentonville cell windows that he suspects are used to smuggle contraband into the prison from the street. Picture: Polly Hancock

Polly Hancock

A CCTV camera pointing towards the sky and metal bars being hurled over the walls are just some of the reasons why people with homes next door to HMP Pentonville say they feel unsafe. EMMA YOULE finds out what it’s like to live within metres of one of Britain’s most notorious jails.

This plastic bag is reportedly passed between cell windows on either side of it. Picture: Polly HancockThis plastic bag is reportedly passed between cell windows on either side of it. Picture: Polly Hancock

From the front windows of houses in Centurion Close, the towering Victorian brick walls of HMP Pentonville loom large.

The barred windows of cells are just metres from homes on the narrow street off Caledonian Road - and people living there say being within the sight-line of inmates has left them feeling unsafe.

They told the Gazette the prison walls on Wheelwright Street, facing their homes, are a weak point in security and described witnessing cactivity that has left them scared.

One man, who did not want to be named, said: “You’re putting inmates near to where they live locally and their friends can come around and give them drugs [over the walls].

“We’ve seen recently how insecure it is.”

The rear of Pentonville Prison on Wheelwright Street, showing how a CCTV camera is pointing at the sky and not at the pavement alongside the prison walls. Picture: Polly HancockThe rear of Pentonville Prison on Wheelwright Street, showing how a CCTV camera is pointing at the sky and not at the pavement alongside the prison walls. Picture: Polly Hancock

Tensions over security at Pentonville have heightened in recent months following the escape of two prisoners and the fatal stabbing of another inmate on G-wing.

Pentonville’s G-wing abuts the perimeter walls, a design that has long been said to cause security problems.

People in Centurion Close report seeing metal bedposts being hurled onto the street below as a means of getting “lines” through the netting.

“It’s like fishing,” said the man. “The prisoners get metal bars feet long and throw them out of the window and over the wall. The lines hit cars and cause damage.

“These bars have got sharp ends, they’re thrown from 50ft above and could potentially kill someone.”

Mr Tempesta has questioned why the CCTV is not pointing towards Pentonville. Picture: Polly HancockMr Tempesta has questioned why the CCTV is not pointing towards Pentonville. Picture: Polly Hancock

Others described the noise of drones being flown into the jail or “long, loud, shouted” conversations between inmates and family or friends standing on the street below.

A 50-year-old man, who has lived in Centurion Close since 2011, told the Gazette: “I’ve woken up before and heard a young boy almost tearful shouting to his dad up in the prison.

“I’ve seen on a couple of occasions people coming on a moped, using a plastic bag to cover registration plates, at 1am or 2am and putting stuff over the wall.

“I’ve also heard inmates who are obviously suffering mental health problems, and experiencing fatigue, shouting from their windows.

“This whole situation stresses me with deep concern for local residents and inmates.”

Signs on Pentonville's walls warn people will be prosecuted if they throw items into the prison. Picture: Polly HancockSigns on Pentonville's walls warn people will be prosecuted if they throw items into the prison. Picture: Polly Hancock

Retired chef and butcher Vittorio Tempesta, 83, left, lives directly beneath G-wing and said he sees anything from “batteries to spoons to water bottles” going in and out of the windows.

“The green bag that’s up there on the wall, they swing it from the second cell window to the first,” he said.

“I went to the prison office and said ‘Someone is doing this every night’. They don’t seem to take any notice.”

He and others pointed out a CCTV camera at the top of Wheelwright Street facing the sky rather than the prison walls.

Clearly visible holes in perimeter netting have also led to criticism that not enough is being done to make Pentonville secure.

Mr Tempesta and others called for prison authorities to act.

“It’s simple and easy and cheap what I would like done,” he said. “If you put up wire nets it will stop 99 per cent of this monkey business, and also barbed wire along the outside walls.

“And the CCTV cameras should be looking into the street at the walls rather than at me and my dog.”

The Ministry of Justice said nets near occupied cells have been fixed and that a hole still visible from Centurion Close is outside a cell that is not in use.

It also said the CCTV camera pointing towards the sky is no longer in use and the areas it covered are monitored by other cameras instead.

Pentonville's G-wing abuts the perimeter walls, a design that has long been said to cause security problems. Picture: Polly HancockPentonville's G-wing abuts the perimeter walls, a design that has long been said to cause security problems. Picture: Polly Hancock

Kevin Reilly, governor of HMP Pentonville, said he and prison staff “work hard every day to ensure the safety and security” of the jail.

He said: “There are a range of measures in place to maintain the security of the prison. These include 24-hour patrol dogs, CCTV cameras covering the entire prison, physical barriers, mobile phone detection technology, metal detectors, a searching strategy and our own intelligence systems that we share with other enforcement agencies, such as the police.

“We have wire mesh netting where it is possible to have it and we are looking at what we can do to put more in place.

“There is also razor wire in place within the walls of the prison and we will be working with the local council to put in place an additional barrier in the area the residents have identified.

“Additionally, we are starting work next week to install replacement cell windows, starting with the cells closest to the prison wall.”

Islington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry: 'Gangs have been controlling the Pentonville Prison walls for more than a year.' Pictures: PAIslington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry: 'Gangs have been controlling the Pentonville Prison walls for more than a year.' Pictures: PA

‘IT’S NOT SWAHILI!’

MP Emily Thornberry has said Pentonville’s walls are “controlled by gangs and not by the prison” as she called for action to stop “contraband” getting into the jail.

The Islington South and Finsbury MP said she has been writing to the governor, prison ministers and police for more than a year.

“There are times when I feel am I speaking in Swahili or something,” she said. “I could not be clearer. I am alerting them to this serious security issue which also has an impact on my constituents who live in the area.”

Governor Kevin Reilly said: “I have been in correspondence with Emily Thornberry and wrote to her at the beginning of November inviting her to the prison for a meeting.”

* Do you have a story for the investigations unit? Contact Emma Youle on 020 7433 0122 or emma.youle@archant.co.uk

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