HMP Pentonville: Life Behind Bars

We hear a lot about crime in Hackney and those accused and convicted of it, on the streets and in court. We hear less about what happens to these people out of sight in prison. I’ve just spent four years working as a teacher at HMP Pentonville, the large holding jail on Caledonian Road. The people I met and worked with included dozens of young men from Hackney and I had the chance to find out what they go through. It’s a grim place, but not quite hopeless.

New arrivals are unloaded at the Reception department, ‘checked in’ and searched. Some will be under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time and some plain scared. Waiting for them are specialist officers and Listeners – inmates trained by the Samaritans who are available 24 hours a day for their peers to talk to. One of their tasks is to have a reassuring word with newcomers. You initially stay in A – wing, where conditions are a little better than elsewhere, with seats and tables spread around communal areas and additional staff and Listeners on hand at the First Night Centre. There are good reasons for these precautions. Young men in prison are seven times more likely to kill themselves than those outside, say the Samaritans, and you are most vulnerable during your first days in custody. I knew two of the men who died in my time at Pentonville. Attempted suicides and self-harm are common.

Leaving one end of A- wing, you step into a towering central hall. Pentonville is a Victorian prison built like a spider, with wings radiating from the centre. Each of the four main wings is five storeys high including the basement. This, along with the shouting, the rattle of keys and the clash of gates, can make it an intimidating place for newcomers; it was for me and must be for prisoners being moved off A-wing for the first time into other areas of the jail.

The building may conform to expectations, but other aspects of life there do not. For example, many inmates are able to wear their own clothes, sent in from home and subject to certain rules, rather than the prison-issue tracksuits and t-shirts. Another initial surprise is the number of women visible on the wings, working in the full range of different roles at Pentonville. There are also no communal eating areas, favourite places for riots to break out in films; instead, prisoners pick up their meals from shiny metal serveries, wheeled out from the kitchens twice a day, and eat in their cells. This means they have to eat, sleep and use the toilet in one small room.

Most cells contain two prisoners, even though they were built by the Victorians to hold one. Inmates spend between 15 and 23 hours a day ‘banged up’, getting unlocked at specific times to collect meals, take a shower or attend activities. You don’t necessarily get a choice about who you share with and this can be a major cause of stress. One of my students recalled waking up one morning to see his cell-mate injecting heroin into his big toe, because he couldn’t find an undamaged vein anywhere else. Another shared with a man who was completely incontinent and non-smokers can find themselves in with chain smokers. Cells are cramped and often dirty, with cockroaches defying attempts to eradicate them.

Bullying and violence are problems, as in most prisons, and drugs are rife. You often smell cannabis around and harder drugs gain popularity because they pass through your system more quickly, giving you a lower chance of being caught through a positive ‘piss test’. Most prisoners I talked to claimed drugs are easier to get hold of inside than on ‘the out’, although many addicts find themselves in deep trouble when they can’t pay their dealers. According to prisoners, corrupt members of staff bring most of the drugs into Pentonville; this is at least privately acknowledged by the Governor and staff searching has recently been stepped up. Drugs are also smuggled in on visits and even flung over walls into exercise yards, where bunches of men pace in wide circles, burning off excess energy.

A standard tactic is for two prisoners to cause a diversion by staging a ‘fight’ during exercise, before others rush towards a newly-arrived package and surround whoever is going to ‘plug’ the goods. ‘Plugging’ means hiding objects in the anal cavity and is common practice. As one inmate put it to me, ‘It’s just one of them things you have to get used to.’ Mobile phones are often kept in this way, whether simply to stay in touch with family (there are always queues for the pay phones on the landings and calls are automatically cut off after nine minutes) or to arrange activities such as drugs deliveries. The advent of ever-smaller handsets has helped practitioners, while a new x-ray searching chair has given an edge back to the regime.

The battle continues, but for every prisoner fighting the system there is another who tries to make his time go faster by using it productively. Some find employment in workshops, or as cleaners and painters. Some attend classes in the Education department, where English, Maths, IT, Art and Music Technology are offered, or take courses run elsewhere in the prison on anything from first aid to industrial cleaning. Groups and services also exist for those with drug and alcohol problems and other personal issues.

Nobody pretends that this provision is anything like perfect and, with funding cuts starting to bite, the range and quality of services is set to deteriorate, with a knock-on effect on prisoners’ chances of rehabilitation. One of the most depressing things about teaching in prison is seeing the same students being released and coming back over and over again. I can think of a number of individuals who had five or six stays at Pentonville during my four years there. But there are still educational success stories, in terms of the many who just manage to keep a grip on themselves through some kind of purposeful activity and interaction and the few who make great strides and genuinely change their lives.

There is hope, too, despite the noise and addiction and violence, in the way Pentonville’s occupants show kindness and humour in daily life, often forming unlikely bonds when thrown together with others of every race, nationality, religion and background. One inmate I knew volunteered to help a disabled prisoner wash and to pick up his meals from the food hatch for him; they spoke different languages and could hardly communicate in words. There was also a man in his seventies living on the wing where my classroom was based, convicted of causing death by dangerous driving, his first offence. Without being asked, a younger man on the landing below, a regular in jail, started to do his laundry for him and make sure that the troublemakers and bullies on the wing left him alone. Those people who describe prisons as holiday camps have surely never been to Pentonville. But while a spell there may be among the worst times of your life, it doesn’t have to be the end of the line.

2 Responses to "HMP Pentonville: Life Behind Bars"

  1. My son is in pentonville at the moment and he has described the conditions there exactly as you have. He says you could easily end your life and no-one would care. The noise and shouting is terrible. He is in a cell almost 23 hours a day ,never gets chance to use the phone. The cells are tiny and filthy , the food is disgusting ,spends most of his canteen to buy food to live. All the family email him regularly which is the only things that keep him going. Luckily he gets on with his cell mate very well and they share what they have. The days go horrendously slow . He says you can smell the violence in the air . I am not surprised there are riots from time to time because of the conditions they are in. It really is a vastly overpopulated place and no amount of refurbishment could improve it . Luckily my son will be out in a couple of weeks and put the horrible experience of HMP Pentonville behind him.

    Comment by Dorothy Sargeant on 27/01/2017 at 4:37 pm

  2. I sometimes believe prison is harder for loved ones than those convicted. Chin up.

    Comment by Remi Makinde on 01/02/2017 at 1:34 am

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