Inspection of HMP Pentonville finds 'cause for continued concern'

By agency reporter
March 13, 2020

Inspectors from HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), revisiting HMP Pentonville to assess progress after a troubling inspection in 2019, found little evidence of positive improvement in a prison where violence had once again risen.

In 2019, inspectors reported poor outcomes in the healthy prison test of safety, and not sufficiently good outcomes in respect, purposeful activity and rehabilitation and release planning. Violence had increased significantly since an inspection in 2017. The response to investigations into self-inflicted deaths was inadequate and support for prisoners in crisis was poor. In 2019, nearly one third of prisoners were locked up during the working day. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/28769)

At the time of the 2019 inspection, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, seriously considered invoking the rarely-used Urgent Notification (UN) procedure, under which the Secretary of State for Justice must respond publicly to HMIP’s findings within 28 days with plans for improvement. Mr Clarke decided not to follow this path “based on us having some confidence in the plans proposed by an enthusiastic new senior management team.”

A follow-up independent review of progress (IRP) to assess key concerns and recommendations from the 2019 inspection took place in February 2020.

Unfortunately, Mr Clarke said, the IRP findings “were a cause for continued concern.” Prison inspectors found the poorest progress in any IRP since the new type of follow-up visit was introduced in April 2019.

Ofsted inspectors who accompanied prison inspectors to follow up progress on their concerns relating to education, skills and work findings in 2019, found Pentonville managers had made reasonable progress against one of the areas but insufficient progress against the other two.

Mr Clarke added: “In terms of safety, until very recently there had been a lack of clear accountability at every level. Action planning to deliver the safety strategies that were now in place had been neither swift nor effective. Indeed, overall levels of violence had once again increased.” The report noted an overall increase in violence of 10 per cent, with a 30 per cent rise in assaults on staff.

There were few incentives to motivate good behaviour, and too many adjudications – internal discipline procedures – for serious breaches of the rules were written off. “This failure to grip and manage key processes created a culture where violence and poor behaviour could all too easily go unpunished”, Mr Clarke said.

Scrutiny of the increasing use of force had only begun in earnest a few weeks before the IRP, and managers could assure neither themselves nor inspectors that all uses of force were justified.

Care processes for those in crisis were found, again, not to be managed effectively and Mr Clarke commented: “the implementation of recommendations from previous self-inflicted deaths could only be described as lacklustre.”

In contrast, the prison had made good progress in tackling its significant drug problem. Inspectors also observed some very good interactions between staff and prisoners during our visit, though some prisoners reported that staff could be rude and unhelpful. Pentonville was also cleaner and cell repairs and refurbishment were under way.

Managers understood that boredom and inactivity contributed to bad behaviour, violence and poor well-being. Despite this, prisoners still spent far too long locked in their cells during the working day.

Ofsted inspectors found that a high number of prisoners allocated to education never started their courses, and a third of prisoners who did start their course did not complete it. Work to reduce reoffending and prepare prisoners for release was slow to progress and had not been prioritised.

Overall, Mr Clarke said: “I was so concerned by the findings of this IRP that I wrote to the Secretary of State expressing my serious concern at the lack of progress. I was particularly disappointed to see that in many areas little or nothing had been done until very shortly before the IRP took place. I acknowledged that a change of leadership at the prison since the inspection had been problematic. I also made the point that lasting improvement would not be achieved through the simple expedient of reducing the prisoner population and giving more resources to the prison. The solution to most issues was in the gift of the prison, but would need a truly collaborative effort from all staff, clear leadership and support from HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). Inspectors will return to Pentonville for a full, announced inspection in November 2020.”

Commenting on the report, Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This is a troubling report on a troubled prison. It sheds more light on the intolerable conditions behind Pentonville’s walls, but unfortunately some of its recommendations are disappointing as well.

“It is time to look beyond chaotic punishment and adopt common sense instead. We have seen, in prisons such as Liverpool, the difference that can be made when there is real effort to reduce the number of people behind bars and give staff the resources that they need to do the job.

“The solution begins with a commitment to scrap short sentences and put fewer people behind bars. By reducing demand on prisons like Pentonville, we can start to turn lives around, protect staff, and make London safer.”

* Read the report here

* HM Inspectorate of Prisons https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/

* Howard League for Penal Reform https://howardleague.org/


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