Report damns 'filthy, vermin-infested' prison

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The Home Secretary was today under pressure to close a "filthy, vermin-infested" prison following a damning inspection report that listed a catalogue of failings.

Pentonville Prison in north London has been labelled "not fit for purpose" by the Prison Reform Trust after prison inspectors found a jail "overrun by cockroaches", inmates scared of guards and sometimes without even access to basics such as pillows and food.

The report showed fraught relations between prisoners and staff, with an "unusually high" level of alleged assaults by officers on inmates and claims of easy access to illegal drugs.

Chief inspector of prisons Anne Owers said the findings highlighted the scale of problems in "overcrowded and pressurised" local prisons.

Her unannounced visit in June found officers at the Victorian prison, the busiest in London, seemed to treat inmates as a "lower order".

Some 55% of prisoners said they felt unsafe and 42% said it was easy to obtain illegal drugs.

The report says there was even an occasion when there was not enough food to go round.

The figures were much higher than at the time of the last inspection or than in other similar prisons.

She found relationships between staff and prisoners had deteriorated since last year's inspection, with allegations of victimisation up from 29% to 40%.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, called for the Home Secretary to consider closing Pentonville as it was "not fit for purpose".

She said the report revealed "the stark reality of life in an overcrowded Victorian local prison".

"It describes a filthy, vermin-infested jail, where even a prisoner's basic requirements of a pillow, toothbrush or cooked meal cannot be guaranteed.

"Many felt unsafe and use of force by staff was high. Inactivity, victimisation and illegal drugs are rife.

"The Pentonville of this report would be more in place in Hogarth's Gin Lane than Islington today.

"This impoverished, chaotic prison is clearly not fit for purpose. For many people time spent in Pentonville will be a brutalising, damaging experience that does nothing to contribute to public safety.

"The Home Secretary must now decide whether Pentonville can be hauled into the 21st century or if he should cut his losses and use this as an opportunity to sell up and divert funding into bail provision, drug and alcohol treatment and more effective community penalties for petty offenders."

The report found the prison was "overrun with cockroaches and vermin". On a night visit, inspectors found leftover meals and open flour sacks in the kitchen which attracted the pests.

Unemployed prisoners, representing more than a tenth of the population of more than a thousand, spent 22 hours a day in their cells, although others were out of their cells more than last year.

Of 12 main recommendations made in the last report, seven had not been achieved and four only partially achieved.

The inspector said Pentonville suffered from an increasingly transitory population, with a rise in remanded and unsentenced prisoners, but there were also "fundamental underlying issues" that needed to be addressed by managers.

Ms Owers said: "They need to ensure that the systems that are meant to be in place are actually operating.

"They also need to explore the reasons for the significant deterioration in staff-prisoner relationships, monitor them closely and take decisive action to investigate and deal with any allegations against staff.

"The report will be disappointing for the many staff and managers within the prison who are committed to improvement and who are working hard to achieve a decent environment.

"However, we hope that it provides the pointers for what needs to be done, as well as indicating to ministers and the public the scale of the challenge in our overcrowded and pressurised local prisons."

The report said all but one of six self-inflicted deaths in the previous two years happened shortly after arrival, but there was "too little attention" to supporting prisoners during their early days.

Emergency bells were left unanswered for too long despite this being a contributory factor to one of the deaths. There were no investigations into near-death incidents.

While healthcare standards, criticised in last year's report, were improving, there were "insufficient primary care services, particularly for mental health".

Only 43% of prisoners, compared with 64% last year, said staff treated them with respect.

Ms Owers said: "There appeared to be a general attitude of institutional disrespect towards prisoners, evidenced by poor treatment across many areas.

"Although we saw some good and appropriate interactions between staff and prisoners, we also heard an unusual number of allegations of assault and bad treatment by staff."

She added: "Some officers appeared to treat prisoners as a lower order, even when they were being helpful to the prisoners.

"One prisoner, for example, went to shake hands with an officer to thank him for his help but was rebuffed, which was humiliating."

Michael Spurr, director of operations for the Prison Service, said: "A programme to support performance improvement is in place at Pentonville and action is being taken to ensure that systems in the prison operate consistently and effectively.

"We have strengthened the senior management team and the governor is taking a robust stance in dealing with allegations of inappropriate behaviour by staff, and the operational capacity of the prison has been temporarily reduced by 116 places.

"Pentonville has been operating under significant pressure.

"As the chief inspector acknowledges, it is the busiest prison in London, receiving as many as 90 to 100 prisoners a day.

"This is a huge management challenge and the demands the prison has faced have been substantial."

The prison was opened in 1842 and although much refurbishment has taken place, the original four cellblocks are still as they were at the time.

Famous inmates over the years have included Oscar Wilde and singer Pete Doherty.

Responding to criticisms of pest problems at Pentonville, a Prison Service spokeswoman said: "Pentonville now has a pest control programme in place which includes a pest control company visiting the site on a weekly basis."

On the issue of food running out, she said: "Food occasionally runs out at the servery (point of delivery) but this is mainly caused by poor portion control by the prisoners serving the food.

"On such occasions additional food is always prepared by the kitchen and no prisoner goes without a meal."

Paul Cavadino, chief executive of Nacro, the crime reduction charity, said: "The report paints a picture of a prison overwhelmed by a tidal wave of short-term prisoners.

"Most of the prisoners who are swamping jails like Pentonville would better be dealt with by community sentences or bail support programmes.

"This would give Pentonville a better chance of working constructively with a manageable number of prisoners."