'Fear, isolation and distress': Pentonville Prison during Covid-19

HMP Pentonville, Islington

HMP Pentonville, Islington - Credit: PA

Confining prisoners to cells at HMP Pentonville for long periods during the pandemic was “inhumane” but necessary to save lives, a report found.  

The annual report of the prison’s independent monitoring board (IMB) for the year to March 2021 found that most prisoners spent 23 hours a day with a cellmate in a 12 by 8 feet cell, with infrequent opportunities for shower or exercise. 

Symptomatic or Covid-19-positive prisoners and their cellmate could not leave their cells at all during the 10 days’ quarantine. 

In the reporting year, two prisoners, two staff members and a volunteer chaplain died due to Covid-19, despite outbreaks in January and February 2021. The numbers are much lower than in many other prisons. 

Government figures show that 190 prisoners died having tested positive within 28 days of death in England and Wales. Of these, 161 were suspected or confirmed to be caused by Covid-19. 

The report, published in late 2021, praised the governor and staff for their hard work in carrying out a tough job, saying it “undoubtedly saved lives”. 

In a statement to accompany the report’s publication, Dominique Demeure and Barry Baker, co-chairs of Pentonville IMB, said: “Pentonville staff and healthcare undoubtedly saved lives this year, but at a price.  

“We received more calls to our helpline than almost any other prison (675 over the year).  

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“Prisoners told us of their fear, isolation and distress.  

“Many lacked basic but vital information about the legal and prison processes facing them. Staff simply did not have the capacity to help. This is unacceptable in a civilised society.” 

Sub-standard accommodation and overcrowding, due to lack of funding, were the main issues highlighted in the report, which stated that “there will not be decency at Pentonville until it is one man to a cell”. 

HMP Pentonville, Islington

HMP Pentonville, Islington - Credit: PA

Rob Preece, campaigns and communications manager at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "Efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in prisons across the country have come at a huge cost, as tens of thousands of people have been locked in their cells for 23 hours a day without purpose.  

“The pandemic has piled more pressure on a system that was already struggling to provide even basic levels of decency. 

"Conditions are particularly grim in Pentonville because the prison is so overcrowded. It is supposed to accommodate no more than 915 men, but at the end of November it was being asked to hold more than 1,000. 

"Reducing the prison population is key. Sensible steps to ease the burden on Pentonville and other overcrowded jails would save lives, protect staff and prevent more people becoming victims of crime." 

According to the report, the normal capacity of the prison, according to Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), is 909 prisoners. The maximum number of prisoners it can hold without serious risks to safety and security is 1000. At the end of the reporting year, there were approximately 966 prisoners. 

After the pandemic hit, all group activities stopped including drug rehabilitation groups and education classes. However, one-to-one support continued throughout. Mental health provision was reduced dramatically. Activity and education packs were provided to be used in cells.  

As remand and sentencing hearings went online, the backlog in the courts meant some men waited for more than a year to get to court, and many continue to wait. 

Positive notes included in-cell telephone access, allowing prisoners to contact people outside, virtual visits with families, some limited refurbishment and improved governor-prisoner communication. 

Justice minister Victoria Atkins MP said: “Latest population projections indicate HMPPS will have significant challenges in dealing with demand once the population returns to pre-Covid-19 levels and therefore it is likely that the prison will continue to be required to hold prisoners over its uncrowded capacity in the future. As such, there are no plans to reduce the population. 

“The government has recently announced to commit over £4 billion capital funding to make significant progress in delivering 18,000 additional prison places across England and Wales by the mid-2020s.”  

According to the MoJ, £1.5 million was allocated to improve facilities in wings of the prison. 

An IMB is a group of independent members of the public who monitor the life in their local prison. It is a statutory board appointed by the secretary of state. 

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