3

A toilet in an occupied cell on G wing.

Blood stained, scum-stained, litter-strewn, dirty as all hell, hell-hole of a prison. That’s an accurate description of HMP Pentonville based upon 8 images included in a recent report on the infamous Victorian prison in North London.

I’m intrigued by evidentiary photos; I reckon they can often tell us more than an exposé-chasing photographer can. All we know is that employees of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate Of Prisons made these images. They exist for the record and I can only show them here because HMIP puts out its reports online in PDF format and I took a few grabs. Even then, I only came across them because Charlotte Bilby flagged them for me.

Bilby, Reader in Criminology and Faculty Director of Research Ethics Department at Northumbria University, says that she knows not of previous inclusions of photographs in HMIP reports. I don’t either, but UK prisons are not something I’m particularly knowledgeable about.

Let’s say for now that these photos are a new discover, if not a new departure.

6

The C wing showers.

1

Area outside J wing.

4

An empty G wing cell.

I wonder what other government-employee-made and , technically, publicly-available images exist? I wonder if a broader selection of pics would give the British public a deeper understanding of Her Majesty’s prisons and jails?

Also, I hope other prisons aren’t as bad as Pentonville.

Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons said his team found during an unannounced inspection that consditions at HMP Pentonville had deteriorated since its last inspection (2013) when things were bad already. With 1,200 men and young offenders, HMP Pentonville is overcrowded.

“It continues to hold some of the most demanding and needy prisoners and this, combined with a rapid turnover and over 100 new prisoners a week, presents some enormous challenges,” says a report summary. “Continuing high levels of staff sickness and ongoing recruitment problems meant the prison was running below its agreed staffing level and this was having an impact on many areas.”

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The changing area in the C wing shower.

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A food trolley.

8

Blood on a bunk bed.

In response, staffing levels have increased and the authorities remain confident in the warden and the leadership of the institution. While, they believe things can improve quickly, they identified many areas for vast improvement.

  • most prisoners felt unsafe as levels of violence were much higher than in similar prisons and had almost doubled since the last inspection;
  • prisoners struggled to gain daily access to showers and to obtain enough clean clothing, cleaning materials and eating utensils;
  • prisoners said drugs were easily available and the positive drug testing rate was high even though too few prisoners were tested;
  • the prison remained very overcrowded and the poor physical environment was intensified by some extremely dirty conditions;
  • some prisoners spoke about very helpful staff, but most described distant relationships with staff and were frustrated by their inability to get things done;
  • too little was being done to meet the needs of the large black and minority ethnic population, disabled prisoners and older prisoners;
  • prisoners had little time unlocked with the majority experiencing under six hours out of their cells each day and some as little as one hour;
  • the delivery of learning and skills was inadequate and there were not enough education, training or work places for the population;
  • acute staff shortages had undermined the delivery of offender management, which was very poor; and
  • the quality of resettlement services was very mixed.

The UK’s use of an independent inspectorate for prisons is a very effective check-and-balance for a hard-edged system that can easily corrupt itself behind closed doors. The fact that prisoners feel unsafe in the transportation vans and cell tiers is the biggest red flag for me here.

It’s worth noting, then, that these photos only reflect the visible messy disfunctions of HMP Pentonville. The uptick in violence and drug use was learnt through prisoner questionnaires.

Read the full report here.

2

Piles of clothing on ridges outside D wing.
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