HMP Pentonville - 160 Years of History
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Chapter 15   -

As the Morris's book on Pentonville indicates the prison went into a decline in the 1950s and perceived itself as the Cinderella of the London prisons. As with all complex organisations this was due to a number of factors. It was not helped by the continual uncertainty about its future. This had commenced in 1935 when a strong body of local residents had persuaded the local council that the prison set fast in the now heavily populated and desirable residential area of Islington was out of place and the site should be taken over for residential dwellings. The Government of the day in 1937 took the decision that this should happen. It would appear the war alone diverted this course of action. The clamour for this to happen re-arose in the late 50s to early 60s and the Commission made it known that the prison would close by 1976, and the site be made available to the local council. This `doom scenario' pervaded the prison culture, prevented any serious investment in Pentonville, and took away from it any real sense of identity. It was the escalation of the numbers being sent to prison in the 1970s that saved Pentonville. The lack of investment has continued. It has taken a couple of decades for Pentonville to regain its confidence, to establish a self identity, and through the quality of the staff became a leading London local prison.
There is clearly a lot of information about the prison today, perhaps that is why it is more difficult to identify where it is at. What is important is that Pentonville began as a grand experiment, and today it retains that tradition of being ready to experiment and take on what is new.
Perhaps one of the greatest ironies, is that it took until January 1998 for the cells to be re-equipped as they were in 1842. That is with each cell having running water and its own toilet. One wing alone has been refurbished to the agreed standard where there is a separate washroom and toilet, the rest are at simple sanitation level with the facilities actually in the cell. Today, after 10 years of very- basic refurbishment, all cells are back in use. Even this is complicated due to the way occupation is measured. There are, including healthcare, 725 cells, of these 172 are designated as officially holding 2 prisoners, so the Certified Normal Accommodation is registered as 897. As local prisons do not work to CNA but operational capacity, the maximum that Pentonville can accommodate is 1,175. Fortunately the prison has operated, on the whole, a little below that figure. For at capacity facilities are stretched to the limit. The prison has been aptly described as 'cell rich but facilities poor'. That is all part of the lack of capital investment that has bedevilled Pentonville's post war period.
For example, Reception is designed to cope with a throughput of 50/60 prisoners in or out. As the actual throughput is in the realm of 90/100 everything is stretched to breaking point. When, as has been the pattern for several years, the escort service is inefficient, the majority of arrivals happen at the very end of the prescribed period, then everything is stretched to breaking point. Not only is the physical capacity stretched to the limit, but staff resources in processing prisoners and medical processing is all happening at a frantic pace to complete all that has to be done. This is far from ideal, and that applies to a lot at Pentonville, but it is the will of the staff that makes it work. Something that has been recently recognised by the latest Inspection Report. A theme that will be returned to later. Just to place a little perspective on the above, Pentonville receives 600 new receptions a month or 7,200 a year. The actual throughput in reception in a year is over 30,000. This is one of the heaviest turnovers of any Local Prison in England, and in an establishment that has some of the poorest facilities. Prisoners are received from a number of North London courts, but the highest percentage come from the Camden and Islington Health Authority area. This is an area recorded as having especially pressing problems in terms of mental illness, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse and a high incidence of asthma and diabetes. Islington has the highest incident rate for suicides in England and Wales. Suicides in prison have been nationally rising steadily. It is heartening that in the last 3 years Pentonville has not had a single suicide in the huge number of receptions from court. The one exception was a transfer in from another establishment in rather bizarre circumstances. It is recognised that the position could change tomorrow. The record to date though, does not happen by accident, but because staff care and sound procedures are in place.

The second glaring example of lack of investment is the healthcare centre. The original healthcare centre was closed in the early 90s as being inadequate and requiring renovation. Healthcare was moved into part of a wing with minimal alteration as this was temporary accommodation. There it remains at least 7 years later still awaiting a decision on funding. Not only does this bring pressure on the medical and nursing staff working in cramped and inadequate conditions, in what is a very busy healthcare, but it takes away from the rest of the prison valuable and essential space. Everything at Pentonville is cramped, any space created is immediately filled and used for another purpose.

A classic example of this is the redevelopment of prison workshops. Industries at Pentonville had been allowed to run down and had virtually withered on the vine. The 8 workshops from the early sixties had dwindled to one by 1993. This by 1996 was only employing 20 inmates for about 18 hours a week. An enthusiastic team set about reversing this trend. The starting point was to make the one remaining workshop attractive to prisoners so that there would be a demand to come to work. They were very effective in that, and the success story commenced. Good staff/inmate relationships were essential to the success of the workshop initiative. This was based on mutual respect. A relaxed yet effective workforce was developed by using largely dedicated staff who had ownership of the workshop and were interested in its progress.

This proved to be a problem. The rapid increase in inmate attendances and workshop hours was not initially matched with available work. The job loading in the tailoring section took over 3 months to stabilize. Work for the contract service area was supplied through Prison Enterprise Services (PES). Again the job loading initially did not meet the available workforce. This resulted in a feast or famine situation with periods when no work was available.

It was agreed that efforts would have to be made to secure work locally to supplement that supplied through PES. A development team was set up from the dedicated staff in the workshop. Working through a yellow pages directory local businesses were contacted in an effort to find suitable work.

It was vital that any work undertaken should be done correctly and to the satisfaction of the supplier. This was emphasized to the work force. A quality control system was developed, inmates were employed specifically to check all work prior to packing and despatch and with dedicated staff overseeing each operation good standards were maintained.

It has to be said that some of the work undertaken requires little skill or training, specifically in contract service work. To motivate the workforce a pay incentive was introduced that rewarded groups of inmates for their efforts. This was based on multiple pay bands, 6 tables of 6 inmates compete for the top pay bands, the table completing the most work correctly would attract the top pay band. Individual efforts are rewarded with job enhancement and offered better, more interesting jobs in the workforce as vacancies arose.

Other incentives were the installation of a pay telephone (phone card) and a shower facility in the workshop. Both important to inmates, with an added benefit of relieving the pressure on wing staff to provide access to telephones and showers on the wing out of workshop hours.

On a lesser note tea breaks are provided both morning and afternoon mid way through each shift.
This workshop was within a year a huge success. It now operated with 80 inmates and productivity targets were being met. Local suppliers of work were satisfied and repeat orders flowed in. As a result a second workshop was opened on the same principles, but undertaking only contract work. The limited estate at Pentonville was carefully scanned. Three other redundant buildings, which had been allowed to accommodate junk were cleared out and with the minimum of investment have been brought back into use. Two have been converted to workshops and a third into a painters NVQ training shop. The latter was a particularly innovative development as it not only provided skills training, but a team of qualified painters to enhance the general decor of the establishment.

As the Americans would say, this had exhausted all the real estate available. There remained, with the prison back into full use, a large group of prisoners -not in gainful activity and locked up for a good part of the day. Education had also been restored from a low ebb, to maximum use with all available classrooms being used. Education had already lost space in order to make provision for the drug rehabilitation courses that were introduced in 1997. Desperate not to lose the very positive momentum of creating activity places, a proposal first mooted in 1995, to close the RC Chapel and make the CE Chapel an ecumenical centre was revived. It has to be said that this did not meet with universal acclaim and support. A full year of talks ensued. The breakthrough came from the inspiration, vision and tangible support from Bishop John Sentamu. He told us to forget all other chapels, and to have a vision for Pentonville, and he would provide an architect to translate that vision into practical reality. He was right, the architect Graham Locke, was an inspiration to us all, particularly our own Works Department that carried out all the work. Their effort was a real team exercise, everyone wanting to solve problems and produce the highest craftsmanship. The end result is almost stunning. As in 1842, the Chapel is now very much a focal point at Pentonville. On 13 February 2000 it was dedicated by Bishop John and the whole Chaplaincy team in a very moving and uplifting service that was graced by the presence of Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra, Sir Angus Ogilvy, our Minister Paul Boateng and the Mayor of Islington. It was another splendid day in the life of Pentonville.

Now that Britain is a multi-cultural society, this is reflected fully in the population that reside at Pentonville. Whilst mentioning the provision for worship, there was a need to reflect that multi-ethnicity in a practical way. Pentonville was one of the first establishments to provide a Mosque for its Muslim population. This in itself took up space which had once been used as a workshop. The Mosque was opened by the Director General Richard Tilt in 1997. Prayers are held there every Friday and classes twice in the week.

Returning to the theme of workshops. The space left by the development of the ecumenical chapel will be used to provide educational classrooms, and the space left by vacating some classrooms will be developed into a further production workshop. So the process of recycling the limited accommodation within Pentonville continues as it has over its life since 1842. The next step in the process will be moving back into use the `old hospital' which will free up more space to be re-used. Here, though, we are talking large capital investment. Pentonville continues to make its case.

It is pleasing to note that the workshop development team have been recognised and were awarded the Group Certificate by the Butler Trust. In 1999 representatives of the workshop team were presented with the certificate by HRH Princess Anne at Buckingham Palace. A nice historical link in a way to the fact that the Sovereign Queen Victoria had given Royal Assent to the Pentonville Prison Act in 1842. The workshop also won the Elton Trophy for the best Prison Workshop in 1999/2000. This is judged by an independent assessor on a whole range of criteria including output performance against budget, quality standards, opening hours, and customer satisfaction. This is a truly remarkable story, and is an illustration of the commitment and dedication of staff to what Major Blake described as `peerless priceless Pentonville'.

Another notable development at Pentonville is the introduction of the accredited Thinking Skills course for inmates. Uniquely it was introduced into Pentonville with no psychological support. Officers were trained and introduced the course and ran it very successfully, achieving 85% success under the accreditation system, which was the maximum possible without a psychologist manager in post. Again this was a credit to the unique staff commitment at Pentonville to take on something new, and make it work. There is now a Psychology Department in place, small compared to some other establishments, but enthusiastic. Every year all targets have been met, Pentonville has also taken on extra courses to meet deficits in other establishments who were not meeting their target. Such is the reputation of Pentonville it is now pioneering the new anger management course.

Education provision and its renascence cannot go unmentioned. Why such a decline had set in is no longer the issue. Its restoration as a core activity in the regime cycle is what is critical. Almost despite Headquarters and its constant desire to change the contracted supplier, almost on a whim for no other explanation has been offered, despite its inability to drive down the cost (the one stated aim) education has regained a focal position, again due to the dedication of local staff. There is a vibrant and varied programme, concentrating on basic studies, and with our multi-cultural population, on English as a foreign language. Yet at the same time sustaining on the one hand, business and computer
studies, and on the other the Arts in painting, pottery, music and drama. Exam results are not the sole criterion of success, but continually and consistently every year, former under-achievers acquire passes and certificates in a whole range of external examinations. Every year over 30 submissions are recognised and awarded by the Koestler Competition. An exhibition of art work was held at an Islington Gallery, and a further one is planned. English Touring Opera has been into Pentonville as has the London Sinfionetta Orchestra, which ran a workshop resulting in the staging of a prisoner concert at the end of the week.

Perhaps the most innovative development, was the pioneering work at Pentonville to tackle the problem of dyslexia. David Newnham in the Guardian, claims that along with Einstein and Eddie Izzard, more than a third of men in British prisons suffer from dyslexia. Whatever the statistics, Pentonville in conjunction with the British Dyslexia Association, decided to do something about it. A space was found. A pioneering, computer based course was developed and under the guidance of an able tutor, help was offered. Hope was offered to men who had all to often been excluded from school by the time they were 11 or 12. Facilities are inadequate in proportion to the need, but for many, confidence is restored, words are unblocked, employment opportunities are opened up. The pioneering spirit of Pentonville lives on.

Pentonville when designed, built and opened in 1842, was functional, elegant, grand and dominated the immediate landscape. It has with the passage of time been submerged by urbanisation and building developments. It has sadly been stripped of much of its architectural elegance, it is no longer so imposing, it is in some respects less functional, is plagued by a number of `add on' buildings that have no architectural elegance and little planning. To put it crudely, it has been bastardised over the years. As indicated, buildings and space, have all been recycled and re-used over the years. The sensible, imaginative redevelopment strategy plan drawn up by the Director of Works in March 1994 lies gathering dust with not a single brick of that plan funded nor laid.

Despite all that, Pentonville has a heart and soul, proving that despite the obstacles, despite the lack of investment, despite being the poor relation when it comes to funding, with a staff that have a will there is always a way. Nor are we talking about a constant staff, there is a heavy turnover of staff as some leave on promotion and others seek either pastures new or to return nearer to their home roots. Somehow the `spirit' that is Pentonville is passed on and kept alive. Modern management all too often has little time for tradition, history or what has been inherited. Tradition is castigated at times as a dinosaur mentality. There are aspects where this may be true, but let me offer a personal caution not to reject sound values inherited from the past. Let me offer Pentonville as a live example of that in practice. A prison proud of its past. preserving the best and the good yet ever striving to move forward. To reject what has been handed down to us over a hundred and sixty years, is both foolhardy and arrogant. In my mind we can do little better than to hold fast to those principles set down for the model prison by the Commissioners and Robert Hosking, and preserved by his successors over time. A proud tradition for a proud prison. Alas all too often unsung. We can though, all take heart, pride and affirmation that this is so from the Inspection Report of April 2000, where the Chief Inspector declares:

There is a refreshingly `can do' attitude throughout HMP Pentonville that is in marked contrast to what we have found in a number of other large, overcrowded, under resourced, inner-city, local prisons. This is described in the Executive Summary as `a constructive atmosphere and friendly relationships between staff and prisoners'. This does not just happen, and I hope that the Governor and his staff will take pride in this very good report, which records the outcomes of their work in considerable detail. That a prison with such daily problems should win the 'Elton' trophy for the best workshop in the Prison Service, pioneer education for dyslexic prisoners, make successful advances in the recruitment of ethnic minority staff and develop suitable arrangements for foreign nationals, to name but four, is remarkable in itself, but also an indication of how wide the positive attitude is spread throughout the establishment. If this can be achieved in Pentonville there is no reason why it cannot be achieved elsewhere.

It is quite clear that leadership, throughout a channel of command, as always, has had more than a little to do with the result. I was impressed by the positive way in which staff approached their tasks, which was reflected by the comments of many prisoners about their treatment and conditions. But no one was complacent, and all were aware that they were not able to provide a full, purposeful and active day for all prisoners. On their behalf, to exploit their approach and to capitalise on
what has been achieved, and is possible, I hope that the resources needed will be made available.

HMP Pentonville shares the same problems as other overcrowded, under-resourced local prisons, but what is so impressive is the way in which staff tackle them. This report catalogues both the problems and the way in which they are being tackled. I hope that staff will be given the resources needed to ensure that all prisoners can benefit from what they are doing and the way in which they are doing it. There is much that others can learn from their attitude and their achievements.

Sir David Ramsbotham
Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons

The publication of the Report led to an article in the London Evening Standard headed `Pentonville is the most `constructive and friendly prison bar none.' A claim to take great pride in, but one that has to be sustained.

As I hope the text has fully illustrated - it is the staff who make the prison what it is. Robert Hosking set a standard for Pentonville in 1842. Despite the trials and tribulations, that tradition has sustained through 160 years, though it may have waned at times. There are also so many aspects such as ranks, procedures and operations that stem from his governorship that are imbedded in the Service. It is a proud history that none should take for granted. It is our privilege to have inherited it, it is our responsibility to sustain, nurture and let it grow. Hosking brought true humanity to his role as Governor, and believed there was hope for all who come to Pentonville. That message remains as pertinent today.

The evidence is there to state that Pentonville has sustained its proud tradition. It can declare its motto with confidence.

`Model Prison 1842 - Leading London Local 2000'