Inside: Pentonville prison

A rare glimpse of life behind bars at Pentonville


Inside Pentonville. Getty Images

“What is the netting for?”

Inside Pentonville, stretched overhead down the length of the corridor, metal netting hangs from the banisters. Paint flecked doors with matchstick sized windows peer into cells, rising up four floors of this imposing Victorian prison. The netting sits, strung taught across each level.

But why is it there? Is it so the inmates don’t throw things over the top?

“No. It’s so they don’t throw themselves or even each other over the top”. Frank, a former inmate who is my guide, says the netting is simply part of life behind bars in this crumbling Victorian institution. A place where violence and self harm are rife, anger and resentment bubbles close to the surface. The netting, fixing nothing, is purely a preventative measure. This is Pentonville, opened in 1816, the first “modern” prison in London.

An unhappy history 

A report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons published in February this year found Pentonville to be severely overcrowded and under staffed. It was designed to hold 900 inmates, but currently houses over 1300.

It is filthy and cramped. Each cell has a bunk bed, a toilet, a cracked mirror, bare walls and little else. Levels of violence are higher here than any other comparable British prison.

The report found that:

“Areas of the prison were filthy. The amount of accumulated waste around the prison was shocking, with mounds of rubbish outside the wings. Too many cells were dirty, covered in graffiti, not adequately furnished and did not have a lockable cabinet for each prisoner. Many had broken or damaged windows.”

Sometimes inmates at Pentonville can spend up to 23 hours in cells such as these. Since the report was published staff have been working hard to improve conditions but many of the issues remain. I wonder how much a place like this can help inmates break the cycle of reoffending.

A former prisoner speaks

Very few journalists are granted access to UK prisons these days, but we were given this rare opportunity thanks to Black History Month. As part of the programme to celebrate the African-Caribbean community, Frank is at Pentonville to talk to inmates about breaking free from life inside prison.

We are in the library where 30 inmates sit waiting for the talk to begin. They are old, young, black and white. The only thing that is the same is their regulation jumpers and t-shirts. A few have come to hear Frank talk, but most are just here for the chance to leave their cell.

“Ten years ago, when I was here, a man came in and spoke about his family, his life, all the things he could do. It gave me a spark, planted a seed. I thought, it would be a miracle if one day I could talk to people like that too. Call it a miracle or whatever, but that’s what I am doing today.”

After 57 convictions, 30 years in and out of prison and a DBS record that’s too long to fax, Frank walked out of Pentonville for the last time, determined not to return. That was eight years ago. Now he works at the St Giles Trust as a free man and helps others to do the same.

There is nothing good about prison. Nobody enjoys being here. Nobody wants to come back here. Nobody but you can make sure that you don’t.”

“You have to face yourself, face up to everything you have done. There isn’t much in your cell, but you do have a mirror. Look in your mirror, it will tell no lies, you just need to face yourself.”

Change is possible

Frank talks about his life now, facing up to the challenges of being an ex-offender. He talks about how he is trying to rebuild family relationships, how he has worked hard to get a job and how he has even met the Queen.

“There are difficulties about being an ex-offender. But I am going forward and the label doesn’t stop me. Change is possible, everyone is entitled to it. You all have the capacity to go back to your society, community, family. These are the things that are waiting for you.”

Inmates clamour to talk, questions topple over each other. The energy in the room is palpable. It’s clear that for many this is not their first time in prison. They have faced the challenges of reintegration with community, building bridges with family and finding an employer willing to take on someone with a less than perfect DBS.

Many of them have faced the challenges and despite their resolve, they failed. They are back behind bars.

I wonder if Frank gave any of the inmates a spark, planted a seed. I wonder how many will go back to their cell and look in their mirror. I wonder if next time any will manage to leave behind the paint flecked with matchstick windows, the metal netting and identical corridors.

From Frank the message is clear. “It all lies in your hands. Don’t come back to prison”.

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