Inmates at Pentonville prison facing ‘totally unacceptable’ delays in mental health provision, report finds

One prisoner forced to wait six months for psychiatric transfer amid ‘significant concern’ over conditions in notorious London prison

Report expresses ‘increasing concern’ about poor outcomes for prisoners at Pentonville, which has been subject to growing criticism in recent years
Report expresses ‘increasing concern’ about poor outcomes for prisoners at Pentonville, which has been subject to growing criticism in recent years

Inmates at Pentonville Prison are facing “totally unacceptable” delays in receiving crucial mental health provision, according to a report raising concerns that insufficient action has been taken to abate serious shortcomings reported at the prison in recent years.

One prisoner waited six months for a psychiatric transfer, while half of the 111 inmates listed for transfer to a secure mental health unit last year – the largest the inspectorate has ever come across – waited longer than the transfer target of two weeks.

The delays occurred in an environment where 84 per cent of prisoners report having arrived at the prison with problems of some kind, with a quarter of these including feeling depressed or suicidal.

One in five men was taking anti-psychotic drugs when the research was carried out in January, which has significant implications for all staff dealing with their care and management, according to the report.

The findings, published today by the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, expresses “increasing concern” about the poor outcomes for prisoners at Pentonville, which has been subject to criticism in recent years, having been given the bottom score in healthy prison tests in February 2015.

Inspectors said the notorious London prison, designated to accommodate 906 men but holding 1,230 at the time of the inspection, found that it had suffered from years of under-investment and remained unsafe.

The latest findings come two years after conditions at the prison were criticised in a damning report cataloguing habitual violence and easy access to drugs, in which inspectors raised concerns with staff about blood stains on cells and beds and nothing being done to remove them.

While it was hoped such reports would encourage prison leaders and staff to address some of the main concerns, the latest report states there remain “significant concerns”, particularly regarding safety, with levels of violence too high and sometimes serious — including a homicide in late 2016.

There had been 196 assaults on staff and prisoners in only six months, with some incidents involving weapons and 70 per cent of prisoners saying they had felt unsafe at some time.

The report also cites “frailties in the case management and care for men vulnerable to suicide and self-harm", with five self-inflicted deaths having been recorded since the last inspection. Two further men are reported to have taken their own lives in the prison in the five months between the inspection and the publication of the report, according to the Howard League for Penal reform.

There had been some proactive measures to address levels of disorder, with signs that this was having a positive impact, the report states, but it conceded that “significant work was still needed to address our concerns about safety", and warned that it was “obvious” there had been “serious under-investment in the infrastructure” of the prison,.

While there was some good work with the large number of foreign nationals in the prison, the report stated that staff did not fully understand the needs of this group and what they could do to support them better.

Resettlement work had meanwhile improved and was rated as "reasonably good" overall, with work having been done to support the inmates with accommodation problems and in maintaining contact with their children, families and friends.

Peter Clarke concluded that the outcomes for prisoners at Pentonville were “not good enough”, saying: “It is clear that Pentonville remains an immensely challenging prison, and that outcomes for prisoners remain, in many respects, not good enough.

“However, we were encouraged to see at this inspection a tangible sense of purpose and optimism among the governor and his senior management team, which were having a galvanising effect on the staff group as a whole.

“Nevertheless, the complexities of the prison mean that its leadership will continue to need significant external support from HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) if Pentonville is to deliver acceptable and consistent outcomes for prisoners.”

In light of the findings, Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, urged the Government to take “bold but sensible action” to ease the pressure on Pentonville through heightened efforts to reduce the prison population.

“One of the first documents to land on the desk of the incoming Secretary of State for Justice is a disappointing report on Pentonville prison, as was the case when his predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, assumed the position less than two years ago,” Ms Crook said.

“That so little has changed in that time only serves to illustrate the scale of the challenge, and the need for urgency to resolve the many problems in our failing prison system.

“The new government must take bold but sensible action to put less pressure on prisons such as Pentonville. By reducing the prison population, we can prevent more people being swept into deeper currents of crime, violence and despair.”

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, meanwhile said: “We have been here many times before – against impossible odds a titanic effort by the Governor and staff makes a failing prison a little less disgraceful.

“But the fundamentals remain – most prisoners share cells designed for one, and even the luckiest of them spend 18 hours a day locked in those unacceptable conditions. Shockingly, we are now told that that represents a reasonable outcome, even though levels of mental ill health are exceptionally high.

Mr Dawson added that improving the prison’s problems were now the job of the new justice secretary, David Lidington, warning that if he fails to do so Pentonville will continue to “burn out good people”.

“Pentonville’s problems can’t be solved by the prison service. They lie squarely at the door of the new justice secretary,” he said.

“He must tackle why we still cram so many sick people into a grossly inadequate and unsuitable space. If he does not, Pentonville will continue to bump along the bottom, burning out good people as it does so.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of HM Prison and Probation Service, said: “Pentonville has been through a very challenging period and I’m pleased that the Inspectorate have recognised progress has been made. The Governor and staff deserve credit for what has been achieved in difficult circumstances but as the report makes clear, there remains more to do.

“More prison officers are now being recruited for Pentonville and for prisons across the estate. With these additional resources in place Pentonville will be able to address the Inspectorate’s concerns and accelerate progress.”

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