HMP Pentonville - 160 Years of History
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Chapter 14   -

No attempt to summarise the history of Pentonville could avoid reference to the work of Terence and Pauline Morris, which resulted in the publication in 1963 of their book `Pentonville A Sociological Study of an English Prison'. The research for the book was commenced in 1958 and it was the first time the Prison Commissioners had allowed academic researchers free access to study a prison establishment in its entirety. Another first for Pentonville. The work is useful in the factual information it provides about this period. In other ways it is disappointing in the sense the academic researchers, despite their eminence, failed to understand the real issues of a prison or of the historical role Pentonville had played. The whole work is somewhat distorted by their pre-conceived academic conceptualisation of what a prison should be about. Despite that it does provide some useful pointers to the development of Pentonville.

The first indication of their value judgements comes very early in the book, `The buildings are archaic and grossly overcrowded, there is not enough work for the prisoners to do, training and social work provisions are rudimentary.' It does reveal however, the role of Pentonville at this time. `The (prisoner) population consists entirely of convicted adult prisoners, not holding remands so that the work of staff is less varied than other locals, and the convicted population are all recidivists, since adult star prisoners convicted in the London area are sent to Wormwood Scrubs or Brixton.' All first custodials went elsewhere as indicated, and Pentonville only received those who already had previous custodial sentences, hence the conclusion that Pentonville was a `recidivist prison'.


The next reference is rather ironic in light of the turnover of prisoners in both an earlier period and today. `About 15 men are received and 15 discharged or transferred from Pentonville each day, and the effect on a relatively small community of some 1,200 men is considerable.

In this period the average population was 1250, and as at this time prisoners could not be doubled up, they were held either 3 in a cell or singly. On average 650 were held 3 to a cell. Nor was there any integral sanitation at this period, so each morning every cell had to be unlocked for `slopping out' and the collection of hot water for washing and shaving.

`Not only is the prison community dominated by men serving substantial sentences but by men comparatively young in years. It might be expected that the model age for a prison for recidivists would have been 30+, but in
fact at Pentonville the modal age is 25. Nearly 45 per cent of the population is under 30, and 63 per cent of it under 35. These figures are all the more striking when it is remembered that the normal criterion for allocation to Pentonville is a previous prison sentence. Nearly 20 per cent of the prison's population had already been to prison before the age of 25.'

Pentonville held `recidivist prisoners', those with a previous prison sentence already served. As always, the system was not absolute. Wormwood Scrubs took the first offenders, or `Star Class', but any they found unsuitable or by implication, a nuisance, were reclassified to `ordinaries' and sent to Pentonville. Once at Pentonville the chance for further transfer were slim, as governors of other prisons were reluctant to take these prisoners from Pentonville. It is recorded that the Governor and staff at Pentonville regarded all this with certain irritation - believing in the jargon `they were being dumped upon'.

The majority of those coming into Pentonville came originally from the London Postal District (40%) from around London and from Essex (15%). Those born in Ireland or Scotland were significant by their numbers (16%), an almost equal number came from the North of England. At this time, almost 96% came from a white European background.

`Both officers and prisoners who have experienced other establishments comment that Pentonville is a `poor relation' among prisons. Its physical character is matched by the depressing criminal record of its population. Although it is large, Pentonville is still a local prison, accepting recidivists convicted north of the Thames in London, Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Essex. It is a prison for failures; for the unsuccessful `professional' thief, for the regular drunk, for the rejected `star' from Wormwood Scrubs, for the recalcitrant corrective trainee, for the long-term `ordinary' awaiting the Dartmoor draft. The staff themselves make such statements as: `This prison has become a dumping ground - anyone can be transferred here but we can't get rid of anyone' ; `It's a Cinderella prison run on the cheap.' These statements reflect an important social fact about Pentonville, namely, the belief that the type of prisoner determines the character of the prison regime and the allocation of material resources to it by the Prison Commissioners. Among all levels of staff, and to some extent amongst objective observers, Pentonville represents one of the sumps of the English prison. system; a receptacle into which the sludge is continuously drained.'

The most immediate striking feature about the Pentonville population is the presence of so many chronically socially inadequate individuals. These are men who, unlike the first-timers in Maidstone or the Scrubs, are frequently homeless, who have completely disorganised family lives, appalling work records (even in years of full employment), and little to look forward to on release save a recrudescence of those domestic and financial problems that imprisonment has enabled them to lay side for the time being.

`The extreme type of inadequate is the chronic drunk. Although at any one time they seldom constitute more than 3-4 per cent of the population they return to the prison again and again. A hard core of about fifty generally return within a day or two and are seldom out for more than a fortnight. As they have no money to pay fines, they invariably serve sentences of between seven and twenty-one days. By and large the drunks are not thieves, but chronic alcoholics of 40+ who, as human derelicts, have gravitated to the Metropolis to live a life without work, friends or relatives, shuffling between Pentonville and the common lodging houses.'


Post war workshops were provided in temporary buildings called `Romney' huts, these were prefabricated wartime buildings measuring 120ft by 40ft with lighting but no natural light and questionable ventilation.

Prisoners were packed into these shops undertaking the traditional mailbag sewing or rag stripping. There were also a Tailors shop and Basket making but these employed less prisoners due to the machinery necessary.

The researchers made a number of comments on the employment of prisoners, the following two passages are of general interest.

'For most of the year all activity takes place inside the shop with rows of talkative hand sewers being watched from three sides by discipline officers who sit in throne like elevated wooden boxes set against the wall. The officers' task is to secure order, to keep conversation at a 'reasonable' level (which is largely impossible), to control the queue for the lavatories at the back of the shop and to restrict the number of men who are inside at any one time. On exceptionally fine summer days between one-third and half the hand sewers take their chairs and work in the yard outside.'

`Almost as many men are accommodated in the Romney hut which is used by the 156 rag strippers and the 36 basket makers. Because the latter monopolize more than a third of the space, the rag strippers are as tightly packed as the mailbag men, sitting in groups of six or so, around wooden tables. Rag work is an activity largely reserved for men of inferior physique, those physically disabled, and the senile. The tendency, therefore, is for this shop to contain a disproportionate number of old men and most of the short-stay drunks, and to this extent it has special problems.'

Visits and Letters

Correspondence remained severely restricted at this time, although the allowance was greater than in earlier periods. All mail was still fully censored and recorded both incoming and outgoing.

Letters may be written and received by a prisoner on reception, and thereafter once every two weeks. In addition he may have one half-hourly visit from friends or relatives every four weeks. At Pentonville prisoners are allowed to write a fortnightly `canteen' letter (for which they buy the stamp) as well so that they may in fact receive and write letters once a week. In addition the prisoner may apply to the Governor for special letters and special visits.

In 1961 the Rules were amended further and one letter per week was allowed, paid for by the Prison Authorities.


On 15 January 1959 the total number of persons concerned with the running of Pentonville numbered 224. Of these, seven were designated senior staff, comprising the Governor, the Deputy Governor, two
Medical Officers, the Church of England Chaplain, the Steward and the Senior Foreman of Works. The bulk of the remainder were distributed in the following way:

   1Chief Officers 1st Class
   4Chief Officers 2nd Class  (1 Hospital, 1 Cook and Baker)
  16Principal Officers
  82Discipline Officers
  10Hospital Officers
  10Instructors  + 6 civilian instructors
  16Engineers, Trade Assistants, etc  + 12 free workmen
   8Auxiliary Discipline Officers
  10Night Patrols


The remaining 42 persons consisted of clerical and executive staff, storekeepers, and visiting ministers of religious denominations other than the Church of England.

The researchers record that the staff at the time were very demoralised. They quote one officer as stating, `Pentonville is the place for throw-outs. Just as it is a dumping ground for prisoners, so too in his view it is the dumping ground for the poorest officer material.' They go on to comment that the staff at Pentonville were to a large extent victims of the system, many with long years of service in what was regarded as a Cinderella prison, where idealism has dimmed, the chances of transfer diminished, and hopes of promotion long faded. Cynicism was rife. It is of note that in this 14-year period (1946-1960) the prison had 7 governors. This frequent change of governor only reinforced the perceived image by many staff that the system was an impersonal machine and they were merely cogwheels.

The chapter on staff concludes with the authors' reflection on how staff perceived the Prison Department. This would not have been a universal view, but it was strong enough for the authors to have included it at some length.

`There is undoubtedly a confused view of the Commissioners and the staff at Head Office, and the characteristics of the latter tend to affect the stereotype of the former. The considerable delays which occur in paper work between Horseferry House and Pentonville give substance to the view that Pentonville is the victim of the `Civil Service mentality' for which procrastination and buck-passing are the norms of expectation. Although an Assistant Governor had been promised in time for the opening of the hostel in February 1959, one was not allocated until over twelve months later.

As in the matter of supplies, so in the matter of expenditure. `Head Office people' are remote from Pentonville and, it is alleged, do not understand its problems. The Visiting Commissioner, as far as could be observed, tended to be besieged like some visiting grand seignior with applications from both staff and prisoners.

Almost all the staff see the Commissioners as being weak in the face of criticism or opposition, bowing alternately to the polar extremes of the POA on the one had and the `reformers of the Howard League' on the other. A fear of MPs in particular is believed to exist. `They are terrified of MPs raising questions in the House and have been known to reverse a decision made by a Governor and backed by the VC rather than let it be raised.' Or, as an experienced prison officer expressed it, `in the old days they had a great deal of power and were responsible directly to the Home Secretary. Since the Labour Party had come into power, they were much weaker, and responsible to every individual MP. He went on to describe Labour MPs as people who were ,only interested in the well-being of prisoners and who wanted to interfere with the administration of prisons'. In fact, the Commissioners are, and always have been, responsible to the Home Secretary, whose constitutional duty is to reply to any Member of Parliament who raises a matter within the Minister's responsibility.'

Visiting Committee

The Prison was still served by a Visiting Committee. `The VC, like the Governor, has a comprehensive judicial function, in that it can grant requests and hear complaints as well as adjudicate on offences against the rules. In theory, the VC is an independent body capable of making awards and decisions which are not necessarily a mere restatement of the wishes and sentiments of the prison. In Pentonville the VC play an active part in the day-to-day life of the prison, and are thought of sympathising with, and supporting, the senior staff.

Some of the duties of the VC are comparatively archaic; for example, the granting of applications for change of religion, and (until the recent Mental Health Act) the certification of prisoners as insane. A variety of applications are also made to the VC, generally those in which the prisoner has not obtained satisfaction from the Governor or the Medical Officer. On the other hand, several members of the VC, especially the Chairman, took their duties of oversight very seriously. The Chairman in particular spent a good deal of time talking to both prisoners and officers individually.'

Mentally ill

It is notable that the authority vested in the original Commissioners for Pentonville (and continued by the Visiting Committee that replaced them) to certify prisoners as insane, remained in place for over a century.

The problem of the mentally ill and the lack of adequate facilities was as acute as this period as it is today.

`The problems of the mentally abnormal in Pentonville must be seen against the background of available techniques for handling them. Without a major transformation of its basic objectives of containment and
control, Pentonville cannot adequately handle the mentally abnormal. The prison hospital has no psychiatric facilities and transfer to Wormwood Scrubs for psychotherapy or other treatment is by no means simple, if only because the authorities there appear only prepared to accept prisoners for whom treatment is likely to be successful.

Paranoid prisoners with aggressive propensities can be extremely dangerous. On one occasion a burly ex-marine who was almost certainly a paranoid schizophrenic attacked an instructor with a pair of scissors. The prisoner spent most of the remainder of his sentence in the hospital, where a hospital officer reported that he had issued the prison with two mattresses. This arose as a result of his patrol on the previous evening when he had found the prisoner lying on the floor with all his kit laid out on the mattress, marine style. When the officer asked him why he didn't sleep on the mattress he replied, `What! and disturb all that lot?' The officer, to avoid trouble, found him an extra mattress so that the display could remain untouched. As far as is known, the prisoner was discharged into the community and no steps taken to arrange for his treatment in a mental hospital.

Certification was not a popular device with one of the members of the medical staff who firmly believed that medical superintendents of mental hospitals were very reluctant to receive offenders, and tended to de-certify them as soon as possible, with the result that they soon found their way back to prison. During 1959 a man who had been certified on his current sentence was returned to the prison from Goodmayes Hospital de-certified. He was put back into the main prison, where his condition immediately began to deteriorate. The Governor noticed this and mentioned the fact to the doctor, who took the man back into the hospital again. This indicates not only the futility of referral to a mental hospital, but is also an indictment of the system whereby the hospital has no alternative but to return the man to prison or Broadmoor.'

While the experience of imprisonment may produce eventual changes in behaviour patterns, not all of which create problems for the prison community, its effect upon the mentally ill, however, can be said to be essentially negative in that the longer the period of imprisonment the less likely are the individual's chances of recovery. Some men become progressively worse. The responsibility for this must in the main be placed upon the courts who in their wisdom deem it desirable to send the mentally ill to prison.

By any measure, this was not the most positive period in the history of Pentonville. It felt it was the `dumping ground' of the London prisons, was under-resourced, overcrowded, and generally neglected. At one point it is recorded that the population reached 1500 prisoners. That was not all, the small site, the lack of amenities, its location, and the general condition of the prison in 1967, led to a decision by the Prison Board, that once again the prison was to be closed down and taken out of use by 1976. This resulted in no investment in the prison, as the Department was not going to make the major investment needed in an establishment that had only a limited life span ahead of it. It was the huge rise in the prison population in the 1970s that saved Pentonville. It is then, almost an accident that it is still here. I personally find it sad, that expediency saved Pentonville, and not a recognition of its historical importance.