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Pentonville Prison virus rules ‘are damaging inmates’

Conditions inside jail ‘inhuman’, says mother of prisoner, as four take own lives in pandemic

12 February, 2021 — By Calum Fraser

A report found that Covid measures at Pentonville Prison have led to a spike in mental health issues

AN investigation into Pentonville Prison found that coronavirus control conditions have had a devastating impact on inmates’ mental health.

Four prisoners at the jail in Caledonian Road have taken their own lives since the previous inspection little over a year ago.

The findings came as a mother told the Tribune this week that her imprisoned son is in a near-constant state of anxiety due to what she called “inhuman” treatment in the jail.

The pandemic has seen prison chiefs across the country implement extra restrictions on inmates in a bid to prevent the coronavirus spreading.

But the prisons’ watchdog report into Pentonville found that these measures, which include keeping inmates in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, have caused a spike in mental health issues.

The Inspectorate of Prisons report added: “Self-harm had increased in the months since the restricted regime had started and there had been four self-inflicted deaths since our last full inspection. Over half the prisoners in our survey said they had mental health problems and waits for primary mental health support had increased.”

The mother of a young man in the prison, who spoke to the Tribune on condition of anonymity, said: “When my son first arrived he was in isolation for six weeks. It’s supposed to be two weeks for Covid.

“But many are staying a lot longer because there is no room in cells or for some other reason that they don’t explain.”

The man is now in with a cellmate. She added: “Being locked up all the time is very frustrating for him. It’s really hard for them mentally. I know they are in there for a reason but they are not treated like humans.

“My son was petrified by the cockroaches and rats. That’s something he couldn’t deal with.”

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The prolonged lockdown is causing irreparable damage, and we will all suffer the consequences as prisoners come to be released without having been given the help and support they need.”

Pentonville is one of the busiest jails in the country as it holds many prisoners on remand as they await trials at courts across north London.

It is estimated that there are 33,000 “movements” through the prison gates every year.

The latest count showed there are nearly 1,000 prisoners.

As the Tribune previously reported, Pentonville has experienced several Covid-19 outbreaks with scores of officers forced off work through illness, while two employees died in the first wave of the virus.

This has led to even tighter restrictions for inmates. One prisoner told inspectors there had been “weeks” when he went without a shower.

Other key findings in the prison inspectorate’s report were:

• More than half of the prisoners released in the six months before the inspectorate’s visit did not have settled accommodation and about 14 per cent of these were released with “no fixed abode”;

• A “large number” of outstanding Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) recommendations are yet to be implemented following deaths in custody;

• Up to 80 per cent of prisoners identified as having a disability, yet the inspectors said their treatment was “inadequate” and a “key concern”;

• Levels of violence have decreased overall since the last inspection in 2019 but there were spikes over the summer.
Pentonville has been subject to several damning reports in the past few years, with one last year leading to chief inspector Peter Clarke writing to justice secretary Robert Buckland advising emergency intervention.

However, inspectors this time around praised new governor Ian Blakeman, who started in December 2019, and the senior management.

The report said: “Managers, staff and prisoners at Pentonville had shown resilience in managing the demands of the pandemic in an institution with many pre-existing problems. There were signs that the pandemic had focused the minds of staff and that the positive direction that the governor and senior management team had set was starting to have an effect.”

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “The steps taken at Pentonville and across the estate, including shielding and mass testing, have helped save lives and limit the spread of the virus.

“Staff hold weekly meetings to ensure the most vulnerable are fully supported, prisoners leave their cells for exercise every day, and in-cell activities and education continues.”


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