One of Britain’s oldest jails remains an “unfit” place for prisoners to live or to be rehabilitated, a watchdog report has warned.
Monitors at HMP Pentonville in north London found the prison’s population surged to nearly 1,150 inmates, far exceeding its intended capacity.
Prisoners were crammed into 12ft by 8ft cells, usually paired, with bunk beds, a single desk, chair and an unscreened toilet, inches from where they ate, slept and spent most of their day.
The report says the “lack of privacy alone could not be described as decent or humane”.
Pentonville’s independent monitoring board (IMB) also highlighted contract-related challenges, with persistent heating, water, repair and vermin issues posing additional challenges for the prison’s antiquated infrastructure.
Moreover, the inoperable lift serving the vulnerable prisoner unit (VPU) raised safety concerns as older and frail prisoners had to navigate narrow metal stairs, presenting risks for both inmates and staff.
The report said: “Lack of hot water, heating and low water pressure were reported regularly, due to the antiquated system, which does not allow for cells to be isolated when repairs are being carried out (often after damage caused by prisoners).
“There were at least two occasions when drain blockages caused sewage to erupt through a manhole at lower ground level, causing extremely unpleasant conditions in the care and separation unit and an adjacent newly refurbished wing.
“The lift which services the VPU remained out of action. Some of the older, frail men had to navigate flights of narrow metal stairs to breathe fresh air; wing staff had to carry some of them on a chair, impossible with larger prisoners.
“This was a safety risk for both prisoners and staff, and an accident waiting to happen.”
IMB Pentonville chairwoman Alice Gotto said: “Pentonville’s population has continued to increase over this reporting year.
“It is disappointing that this has happened despite detailed evidence from this board and His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons of the detrimental effect this would have on prisoners.
“For the second year running we received more calls from prisoners to the IMB helpline than any other prison in England and Wales.
“Despite the hard work of staff and management, Pentonville remains an unfit place for prisoners to live or to be rehabilitated.”
The 2022/2023 report also found that 75% of the prison’s population is on long-term remand and that there is a lack of focus on preparation for release.
The board says many prisoners are released directly from court having received no resettlement preparation, and 40% of those released during the reporting year, from court or prison, were released with no accommodation to go to.
Despite the overcrowding and deteriorating conditions at the prison, the report highlights a few successes, such as rigorous searching procedures having curbed contraband, and a neurodiversity unit benefiting prisoners with neurological disorders.
The monitors conducted their reporting between April 1, 2022 and March 31, 2023, encompassing a full year of assessment.
A Prison Service spokesman said: “HMP Pentonville has taken urgent action to address some of the issues raised in the report.
“This includes major refurbishments to boost capacity and launching new training and education programmes so prisoners can turn away from crime for good.
“The Government is also pressing ahead with the biggest expansion of prison places in over a century – delivering 20,000 additional spaces including six new, modern jails.”