Behind the Bars

Although it was not my first visit to a prison, it did not feel just like any other day. It was early, still pitch dark outside. Trying to figure out what clothes to wear was rather difficult. I knew it was sensible not to wear any low cut tops or short skirts (rather obvious), but I was also advised not to wear scarves or elegant clothes. I opted for a pair of jeans and a sweater. I also knew that I could not take anything possibly relating to computers, such as USB sticks or CDs, but also I couldn’t take in chewing gums which apparently are used by inmates to force the locks open (don’t ask me how!).

Waiting at the bus stop, there I was: standing in the freezing cold on my way to HMP Pentonville Prison in London.  Some notorious inmates of this prison have been George Michael and Pete Doherty (who also wrote a song called Pentonville). When I arrived, I was surprised to find that the building is very visible from the main road and houses are built very close-by. In fact, some of the cells’ windows can be easily seen from the road. I got in through the main entrance and had to get a Visitor’s pass after having had my fingerprints and a photograph taken by security. No mobile phones could go past security, so I left mine in a locker. Clearly, no cameras could be taken inside either so the photographs in this post were found online and were not taken by me.
When I walked in, accompanied by internal staff, it was the time of what is called ‘free flow’, that is, when cells are unlocked (I think different wings are unlocked in turns and not all cells are unlocked, e.g. those with high security regime) and prisoners are moving from one wing to another heading to whichever activity they’re meant to attend. These activities can be educational or simply taking a shower. ‘Free flow’ lasts for about half an hour and it takes place about twice every day. When it ends, everything is locked up again and inmates are either back in their cells or in another space where they’re undertaking an activity such as a workshop. I couldn’t help but notice that the great majority of inmates was either black or Asian, although there were a few whites too. From what I saw, most of them were also quite young.

Pentonville was the first prison in Great Britain to put into practice the enlightened ideas of the prison reformer, John Howard. Built in 1840-42 to the designs and under the direction of Major (later Sir) Joshua Jebb, Surveyor General of Prisons, it pioneered the separate housing of inmates in wings radiating out from a central hall. (Source: The only time it stopped being used as a prison for English inmates was during the Second World War, when it was used to hold German prisoners. Other than that, it’s been actively in use since it was first opened.


Pentonville has 7 residential wings:

  • A wing – Induction and First Night Centre. This wing has recently been refurbished to cater for new arrivals into custody.
  • B wing – Resettlement wing
  • C and G Wings are for remand and convicted prisoners and provide services including education, workshops and offending behaviour courses
  • D Wing – Is the enhanced wing
  • E Wing – Substance Misuse Unit
  • F Wing – IDTS (Stabilisation Unit)

I walked through one of the wings (I am not actually sure which one it was, but I think it must have been either C or G) and I was surprised by the brightness of the spaces. Of course, the light is not as abundant in the cells. Some of the cells, those for vulnerable inmates, are actually in the basement and have no natural light. The prison was built for around 600 prisoners, however now the prisoners are more than 1200 and all cells (intended for one individual only) host two prisoners. Although I didn’t actually walk inside a cell, I could see they were tiny and there was barely room for a bunk bed and a table where prisoners eat. In fact, they collect food and eat in their own cells rather than in a shared canteen. Breakfast is collected together with the evening meal, but most of them apparently eat it in the evening or at night because they’re hungry and end up skipping breakfast the following morning. Some cells have a TV, which the inmates pay for. I was told that, although it seems like an excessive privilege, it is actually a very good weapon to use to make sure the prisoners behave well. In fact, I understood that the threat or the actual act of taking away the TV is sometimes more effective than any other threat. Clearly, spending so many hours locked up, the worst thing is making time go by without going crazy. It is also better to let them watch TV rather than get into fights with each other or using drugs (although they probably do it anyway, although Pentonville has gone down hard on the fight against drugs given the recent scandals).

I had the opportunity to see a classroom which was actually well equipped, with some computers, a board, large tables and chairs. The computers don’t have internet connection and even the staff’s own computers, which are located in separate sections of the wings, to which prisoners have no access, have limited access to internet. Although this might sound obvious, every single space is separated by locked gates which need to be unlocked to go through and locked immediately after. Even to simply access the staff’s toilet or a staircase, there will be one or two locked gates and doors to get through. On my way out, the food was being served for lunch and the smell was absolutely unpleasant and I surely did not feel hungry after that.

 Source: The Guardian

It was a very interesting experience, because, while one can imagine what a prison is like from all the films that depict life in prison, the reality is not as ‘cool’ as television and the cinema make it appear.

A report published in June 2011 by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales (HMI Prisons), sadly confirms my general perception of the building’s state:

 “Pentonville is an iconic prison, but not always for the right reasons: its four central wings are over a hundred and fifty years old, it has a large and transient population drawn from some of London’s poorest boroughs, and its prisoners have amongst the highest incidence of mental ill health and substance abuse of any local prison in the country. […]Pentonville is amongst the most challenging local prisons in the country to run. Its ageing and crowded fabric offers limited scope for change or development, its population is not only transient but also hugely needy – and sometimes challenging – and resources are declining. Despite all this, managers and staff were working hard to make the prison a safer and more decent place. There was now a little more purposeful activity and some exciting, if nascent, ideas to work with local authorities to improve resettlement outcomes. It goes without saying that there is much more to do. Indeed the scale of the issues facing Pentonville means that it is also essential that the prison is supported by an effective London-wide strategy – but there is now at least a positive sense of direction.”

Source: The Guardian

The most overwhelming feeling even for someone who, like myself, knew perfectly well I’d be inside for no more than a couple of hours, is that, as you walk in, you lose control of what’s happening around you. The doors and gates rapidly being locked behind you, you realise that if – for any reason – you actually wanted to leave, you would not be able to do so without having someone able to let you out. Despite that, I actually came out feeling quite positive about the overall experience: seeing the prisoners so close-by, walking right next to them, reminded me that, even if many – if not most of them – have committed some serious crimes, they are humans. Some of them are there because they probably were unlucky enough to be born in the wrong place, to the wrong family or ended up mixing with the wrong crowds.

That is not to say that I feel sorry for them or that I would forgive the crimes they have committed and for the pain they’ve caused to others. Rather, it is to say that seeing a prison from inside has made even stronger, in my eyes, the case in favour of Article 6 (European Convention of Human Rights) rights. When you see with your own eyes what life in prison means, you understand why the criminal justice system must strive to secure convictions of the guilty and ensure acquittal of the innocent. Unfortunately, even in a perfectly well-oiled criminal justice machine, there are bound to be mistakes. This is why the importance of the right to a fair trial in full respect of the presumption of innocence, the equality of arms and the impartiality of the tribunal, must never be underestimated or taken for granted. The natural continuation of the right to a fair trial is the full compliance with human rights inside the prison, that is not to say to give unlimited privileges to prisoners but simply to remember that they are humans despite the inhumanity of some of their actions and – if we are to call ourselves a modern society – we must strive to respect their human dimension and, if possible, help them to rediscover it through rehabilitative and educational programmes.

Source: The Guardian

For anyone interested in more information on HMP Pentonville or the prison system in general, I have found this website very informative and useful:

The pictures in this post (except for the image of Jebb’s drawings of the prison plan) were all published by The Guardian online.

15 thoughts on “Behind the Bars

  1. Very nice post. I was once lucky enough to visit Alcatraz prison in San Francisco. I had seen Escape from Alcatraz and was expecting the place to look very cruel and forbidding. Unfortunately, when I visited, it had been a tourist destination for so long that the aura of the place had been lost.

    Still it was a nice visit and we ended up taking lots of photos of the awesome views of the bay 🙂

    • Hi Nish – I have never been to Alcatraz but I had indeed got the impression that nowadays it is mainly a tourist destination . I was lucky to visit Pentonville which is a fully-functioning modern prison and visits are not open to general members of the public. Thank you for your interesting contribution!

  2. Interesting post. My mother and brother recently had a tour of the gardens at Wormwood Scrubs and they got taken through part of the prison – apparently it was facinating, but the inmates were kept well away from them.

    I agree that Alcatraz has become a tourist destination, but I found the tiny cells stacked on top of one another really disturbing and the fact that they could see the bright lights of the city across the bay from the windows must have been depressing.

    Nice blog.

    • Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment.
      Was your tour part of the open gardens initiative? I heard about it but didn’t have a chance to visit any gardens unfortunately (partly due to my hayfever, which made me think it would not have been such a great idea!!!).

      I don’t think the Wormood Scrubs gardens had been opened to create a ‘tourist destination’ in the Alcatraz-style, but perhaps rather to show the work of the inmates whom I believe do the gardening work themselves. But please correct me if I’m wrong – surely you know more about me, since you attended that visit!

      I’m looking forward to visiting you blog!

      • Unfortunately I didn’t go, but my mother and brother were on an open gardens visit. They did get to see a bit of the prison too which they weren’t expecting. They were warned that the prisoners were likely to shout abuse at them, which they did, so it was certainly not something that could be advertised as a ‘tourist destination.’ I believe they open the gardens every year and I shall try and go next year. I think they also open Holloway for the gardens too.

      • Sorry to hear that but I suppose it is quite understandable. I only heard of the gardens at Scrubs and next year I will definitely make an effort to visit some gardens around London!

  3. Hi, I found your post incidentally. I work in a prison and what i like is you saying that they are also humans………. someone said once that prison can harden you or break your heart. I think for me very often is the second option.

    • Hi, thank you so much for your comment. I am glad you could see through what I had written and feel the emotion I was trying to convey.
      I had never heard that expression but I agree with you. It’s impossible to stay indifferent to what you see and hear.

  4. My partner is currently in Pentonville. I found your article really interesting to read. I’ve tried finding out as much as possible about the place, but there’s only really government information which isn’t true to life, so thank you!

    • Hi, thank you so much for vising my blog and leaving a comment. I am glad you have found my perspective on Pentoville an interesting read and I would be interested in hearing you views and experience on your prison visits to your partner, if you feel like sharing them.

  5. Hi, the visits are Ok I suppose. They’re never going to be a nice experience! It’s horrible leaving at the end of the visit, knowing my partner’s not coming home for some time. It’s sometimes quite upsetting.The prisoners are seated before the visitors enter the hall but some visitors don’t show up. The prisoners without visitors then aren’t allowed to leave until visiting time is over so they have to sit and watch the others interacting with friends and family which is sad.
    Besides the guards, it’s not at all scary. In fact they make me feel safe- after all it is still a prison and you don’t know why some of the men are there in the first place!

    • Thanks for sharing this. I didn’t know prisoners without visitors had to sit until the visiting time is over. That is indeed sad. I can imagine this happening over and over again for some inmates. I see your point about having the guards there, afterall they are there to protect you and other individuals so there is no reason to be afraid. To be honest, when I visited this prison, I never felt in danger or afraid. I think it was rather the thought of being inside a prison that scared me perhaps rather than the actual experience. All in all, a reassuring experience (as a one-off visitor, though!).

      • I only feel afraid because I know what some of the guys are in there for! And, yes it is generally the same prisoners who are left waiting for someone who doesn’t turn up. Its quite heartbreaking…

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