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Ex-inmate: ‘They need to rip Pentonville down’

Man who served 43 years behind bars says Caledonian Road prison is ‘rundown’ and ‘cockroach-infested’

24 August, 2018 — By Emily Finch

John Massey, a former inmate at Pentonville

A FORMER long-serving prisoner has called for Pentonville to be ripped down as inspectors branded the Victorian jail “inhumane” for the second year in a row.

Now-freed John Massey, who was released in May after 43 years behind bars, spoke to the Tribune about the 175-year-old prison in Caledonian Road, which he dubbed “dilapidated, rundown and infested with cockroaches”.

He said: “It’s like a cattle market, a holding tank. It’s not a long-term prison so they’re concerned with the allocation of prisoners to other places, not rehabilitation.

“They need to rip it down and start again. You can’t polish a turd, to put it crudely.”

Mr Massey was jailed for more than twice his original sentence for murder in 1975 after escapes from custody, including one from Pentonville to see his dying mother. He said he had seen from the inside how conditions had worsened.

The Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) – made up of 20 members of the public who regularly inspect the prison – has ruled that there are massive failings at Pentonville. Its yearly report, released on Wednesday, called for prisons minister Rory Stewart to invest more money in the jail to improve con­ditions and retain officers. It asked for more to be done to help rehabilitate young offenders, cur­rently not receiving “inter­vention and support”.

The report said there were 1,224 men held in the prison where the recommended capacity is 909. This means inmates live in “inhumane” conditions where often two men have to share a badly-screened toilet in a 12x8ft cell – a size similar to a garden shed.

Mr Massey said: “The pure boredom of being locked up attracts people to the drug scene. If there’s one guy in the cell that likes to take drugs, sooner or later the other one is corrupted.”

Pentonville prison

For the past few years the IMB has called for “dilapidated” windows at the prison to be replaced after a rise in knives, drugs and phones being smuggled in by drones. But Mr Massey believes the new windows may not let as much fresh air into the cells. “It will be suffocating if you can only get air through tiny pinholes,” he said.

Plans to close the country’s oldest jails, including Pentonville, were scrapped last October after a surge in the prison population.

There were some positives in the Pentonville report, which highlighted how frequent lockdowns – where prisoners are unable to leave their cells while prison officers carry out checks – had improved the removal of contraband. More frequent security checks of visitors and the routine presence of patrol and sniffer dogs had tackled smuggling.

But with not enough staff, large numbers of prisoners were missing education classes, healthcare visits or even meetings with loved ones.

The Ministry of Justice launched a government-owned company, Gov Facility Services, following the collapse of Carillion earlier this year to deliver planned building repair work and day-to-day maintenance of prisons.

Chairwoman of the monitoring board Camilla Poulton said: “We feel it’s too early to say if they [Gov Facility Services] have vastly improved the situation.”

She said there had been positive changes at the prison in the past year, with deaths in custody down compared to the previous year while management of gangs was improving through a “complex way of monitoring their connections, which decides how and where men should be located in the prison”.

The board will be recruiting more members next month and is particularly keen for local residents to get involved.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: “Work is underway to fix Pentonville’s old windows and grilles, with around 30 per cent already replaced.

“The prison is seeing a reduction in drug use thanks to new netting, as well as regular sniffer dog and staff-led searches.”

He added: “In addition, 35 new prison officers have been recruited and we are working with charities to better identify and rehabilitate known gang members at Pentonville.”

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