Prison watchdog tears into ‘unsafe, inhumane and overcrowded’ HMP Pentonville

Pentonville prison. Picture: PA

Pentonville prison. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

A prison watchdog has declared Pentonville “unsafe and inhumane” in the wake of two jailbreaks, an unofficial strike and six deaths, including the killing of an inmate.

A photo taken last year shows no netting between the three top windows and Wheelwright Street at the

A photo taken last year shows no netting between the three top windows and Wheelwright Street at the rear of the prison. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Polly Hancock

In its annual report, the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) said the constant stream of problems showed “serious shortcomings”.

Young father Jamal Mahmoud, 21, was stabbed to death in October and the following month Matthew Baker, 29, and James Whitlock, 32 escaped.

The report, published today, said there was a “considerable” drug problem at the prison, partly due to the decrepit windows allowing drones to be flown in, and also because visitors and “possibly staff” smuggle drugs in.

The prison has more inmates with psychiatric conditions than any other local prison, with one fifth of people on anti-psychotic drugs. The IMB said if suicide and self-harm were to be tackled then seriously mentally ill people should not be held there.

Inspectors also said it was bursting at the seams, with 380 more men than the Prison Service deemed suitable. “Confining two men in a cell measuring 12ft by 8ft is not humane,” the report stated. “One has to eat his meal in the cell while the other may be sitting on a badly screened toilet a few feet away.

The “squalid” environment was also lambasted: the report said blocked toilets, leaking sewage and broken facilities meant prisoners were regularly going without showers, clean clothes and food.

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The Gazette has learnt some inmates of private prisons, such as HMP Thameside, refuse to leave their cells for court hearings, demanding they are held by video link because of the risk of being transferred to a Victorian prison – such as Pentonville – when it’s over.

Since last year’s IMB report flagged up drones delivering drugs through the dilapidated windows, just a quarter of the old windows have been replaced, the report stated. That means staff and prisoners’ safety is still at risk – as well as the public’s.

A Gazette investigation in November revealed a contraband package had apparently been smuggled through a hole in netting hours before Mahmoud was fatally stabbed.

Union reps told this newspaper that staff shortages had left prison officers powerless to prevent the illicit drops.

Neighbours of the Caledonian Road jail felt unsafe and regularly witnessed drugs being smuggled into the prison.

The IMB also said there had been 10 assaults on staff a month, including two sexual assaults on female staff.

Contractor Carillion, which is responsible for the prison’s maintenance, is failing, the IMB said. “The company’s lack of responsiveness even when confronted with urgent situations and the long (six-month) backlog of jobs outstanding has meant Carillion’s failings were raised in nearly every one of the board’s monthly meetings,” the board found.

Rehabilitating offenders is “tremendously difficult” because two out of three prisons are there for three months or less, the report outlines.

There were some improvements made, the IMB has said. Anti-drone technology has been installed, as have metal detectors, while dogs have been reinstated.

Uniformed staff now have body-worn video cameras and the perimeter walls and exercise yards have improved security.

A Carillion spokesman said: “The age and condition of Pentonville presents maintenance challenges which our people work hard to overcome.

“Although the level of reactive maintenance jobs has increased we have continued to improve our performance against the agreed targets. We do not recognise the reference to a six month backlog of work.”

The Ministry of Justice has been contacted for comment.