HM Prison Pentonville
HM Prison Pentonville, informally known as “The Ville”, is a historic Category B men’s prison located in north London. With a fascinating history dating back to the Victorian era, Pentonville has housed some of Britain’s most notorious criminals and played a significant role in the development of the modern prison system. However, in recent decades it has become notorious for overcrowding, poor conditions and security issues.
History of HM Prison Pentonville
Construction in the 1800s
Pentonville Prison was constructed between 1840 and 1842, making it one of the first modern prisons built in London. It was designed by Captain Joshua Jebb to hold 520 prisoners under the “separate system”, keeping inmates isolated in individual cells. This design was intended to encourage self-reflection and reform among prisoners.
Separate system design
However, the separate system resulted in high rates of mental illness among prisoners. Inmates were forbidden to speak to each other and had to wear masks when outside their cells. The harsh isolation caused many to suffer delusions, suicidal thoughts and psychosis.
Model for other prisons
Despite this, Pentonville became a model for many later prisons built across Britain and its colonies over the next few decades. Its innovative radial design with cell blocks spreading from a central hall was reproduced in many 19th century prisons.
Executions from 1902
In 1902, Pentonville took over executions for North London after the closure of Newgate Prison. Around 120 executions were carried out at Pentonville up until the last in 1961. Condemned cells and an execution room with gallows were constructed.
The Prison Today
Inmates and capacity
Today Pentonville holds around 1,100 adult men, both those awaiting trial or sentencing as well as convicted prisoners. It has a mix of enhanced, standard and remand wings. It remains overcrowded, holding several hundred more than its intended capacity.
Problems and conditions
Over the last decade, the aging Victorian prison has been plagued by problems. Chronic understaffing has led to restricted regimes. Poor facilities result in lack of sanitation, exercise time and purposeful activity for inmates. Vermin, broken windows and overcrowding are ongoing issues. There is easy access to drugs and contraband.
There have been several infamous escapes from Pentonville in recent years, highlighting the prison’s security weaknesses. Ageing infrastructure like broken windows is partly to blame. The most recent saw two prisoners escape in 2016 using diamond-tipped cutting tools.
Pentonville has housed some of the country’s most famous criminals and activists over the last 150 years.
The famed Irish writer Oscar Wilde spent two years doing hard labor at Pentonville Prison in the 1890s after being convicted of gross indecency.
Éamon de Valera
Irish nationalist Éamon de Valera, who went on to become President of Ireland, was imprisoned at Pentonville in the early 20th century for his role in the Easter Rising.
In 1953 John Christie, the notorious British serial killer, was hanged at Pentonville for murdering his wife and other women.
In the 2000s, British indie musician Pete Doherty served time at Pentonville for drug offenses and other charges.
With its long and storied past, HM Prison Pentonville remains an important part of British penal history. However, significant reforms and investment are needed to improve conditions and security at this aginginstitution. Pentonville will likely continue being a subject of public fascination and debate about the state of prisons in the UK.
When was Pentonville Prison built?
It was constructed between 1840-1842 in Victorian times.
What design features did it influence?
Its separate system and radial layout with cell blocks spreading from a central point became very influential.
Who were some famous inmates?
Oscar Wilde, Éamon de Valera, John Christie and Pete Doherty were all imprisoned there.
What are some of today’s problems?
Overcrowding, poor conditions, lack of staff, insecure windows and easy access to contraband.
When was the last execution held there?
The last execution at Pentonville took place in 1961.