Pentonville Prison

HM Prison Pentonville is a category B/C male prison located in the London Borough of Islington. The facility was opened in 1842 and is currently operated by Her Majesty’s Prison Service, with a capacity of 1310 prisoners.


Millbank prison opened in 1816, and proved to be a successful method of dealing with large numbers of convicts. Other prisons of its nature began to emerge across the country, and in April 1840, construction began on Pentonville Prison. It was designed by Captain Joshua Jebb and completed in 1842 at the cost of £84,186. The facility contained a central hall with five separate wings radiating outward from it, much like the design at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

It is claimed that the design of Pentonville was based on the Separate system, which focused on keeping the inmates in solitaryPlan of Pentonville confinement. The prison was originally built to hold 520 prisoners, each separated in their own cell which was roughly 4 metres long, 2 metres wide and 3 metres high. The guards had no visual access inside the cells from their central position, which afforded the inmates far more privacy than was initially intended. It is often disputed as to whether the prison was focused around Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon Plan, which involved constant surveillance. However, as the guards were unable to monitor the prisoners in their cells, many experts agree that the Panopticon Plan was not in use at Pentonville.

In keeping with the Separate System ideology, the inmates at Pentonville were forbidden to speak to one another. When they were allowed outside to exercise, prisoners were forced to wear brown fabric masks and march silently in rows. Despite these strict rules, reports indicate that many prisoners did in fact speak to one another, and were punished accordingly.

In 1853, a new system known as the ‘Stage System’ was brought to Pentonville. The idea behind the change was to not only enforce discipline, but also reward good behaviour. The prisoners were housed according to their social class, to reflect the outside world within the facility. The Stage System allowed the inmates to work their way up the classes through hard work and good behaviour.

Convicts in exercise yard at Pentonville 1862

Prisoners typically worked eight hours a day, performing tasks such as shoemaking, painting, cleaning, sewing and tailoring. Oakum picking was introduced in 1864 as part of the hard labour programme, which involved the separation of the fibres of old ship ropes. Other hard labour devices were installed at the prison, including the treadmill. Pentonville, alongside many other prisons of its time, relied heavily upon the use of whipping to punish and discipline the prisoners.


Pentonville began performing executions in 1902 to take over the role performed by Newgate Prison. New cells for death row prisoners were constructed, alongside an execution room which would house the gallows for Newgate. The prison quickly became a school for hangmen, providing men with a all encompassing course which would give them the hangman qualification. The course lasted for one week, and taught the aspiring hangmen how to carry out an execution efficiently by calculating the drop correctly and what to do should the neck not snap on impact.

Pentonville Prison 1842

Those who were were hanged at Pentonville were buried in unmarked graves at the prison cemetery located behind the facility. The last person to be hanged at the prison was Edwin Bush, who was executed on 6th July 1961.

Modern Standards

An inspection report was carried out in the spring of 2003 and found that the prison was severely overcrowded. The cramped environment led to poor standards being upheld, and the basic requirements for prisoners were not being provided on a regular basis. The report showed that inmates were rarely provided with clean clothing, showers or their phone calls, leading to unhygienic circumstances. The lack of educational tools and inadequate treatment of the mentally ill were also key aspects of the investigation, which prompted many changes within the facility.

In 2005, a new hospital wing was constructed, at the cost of £15 million. Despite this, further inspections showed that care in Pentonville remained inadequate, with a lack of supervision in the hospital, as well as irregular drug dispensing. Just one year after this report, a total of 14 prison officers were suspended after allegations surfaced regarding trafficking and inappropriate relationships with the prisoners.

Pentonville prison

Pentonville’s Independent Monitoring Board conducted their own inspection of the facility in 2007 and found it to be infested with cockroaches and rats. In addition, the board found that the amount of prison staff was inadequate, as was their care of the mentally ill inmates. In 2009, managers of Pentonville had charges of gross misconduct brought against them. An investigation showed that the managers temporarily transferred prisoners to HMP Wandsworth before inspections, in an attempt to manipulate the prison population statistics.

The Governor of Pentonville, Gary Monaghan issued a public comment regarding the standards of the prison:

“There has been significant improvement made at Pentonville over the last two years. Our short term priorities have been addressed and we are demonstrating continuous improvement in other areas.

An innovative Personal Officer Scheme was introduced in 2012 which enables landing staff, offender supervisors and other agencies to share information and provide greater support for prisoners, ensuring offending behaviour targets are met and the prisoner is fully engaged with the process.

In the absence of central capital or refurbishment money the establishment has improved the prison’s infrastructure to provide greater opportunity for offenders to engage in purposeful activity during a longer working day, and contribute to their rehabilitation. This supports the recent Government directives to reduce re-offending and empowers offenders to address their offending behaviour, and contribute in a purposeful way to their own rehabilitation. This will also be recognised by work undertaken via the ‘Pathways Action Plan’ in the Reducing Re-Offending Strategy. This locally has been called the `What’s in it for me’ project and includes the concept of Every Contact Matters.”

A new Short Term Offender Plan (STOP) has been introduced as part of an action plan to reduce re-offending. STOP will help offenders address issues relating to the 7 Reducing Re-Offending pathways, and ensure they engage with their rehabilitation with the aim of reducing the risk of re-offending after release.”

Prisoner Accommodation


Pentonville has seven residential wings:

  • A wing – Induction and First Night Centre. This wing has recently been refurbished to cater for new arrivals into custody
  • B wing – Currently the detoxification wing however plans are in place to convert this area into a resettlement wing
  • C and G Wings –  For remand and convicted prisoners and provide services including education, workshops and offending behaviour courses
  • D Wing – Is the enhanced wing
  • E Wing – Foreign Nationals
  • F Wing – Currently coming to the end of its refurbishment and will then open as a Substance Misuse Unit

All wings have been refurbished and offer integral sanitation, showers, hot water boiler and card phones. There is now more time out-of-cell for prisoners during the core day and in the evenings for all the wings.

Pentonville prison

Prisoners have the opportunity to attend work, gym, education and offending behaviour courses and chapel. The prison is well recognised for its drug intervention programmes to help prisoners address their offending behaviour. The prison works in partnership with other outside voluntary agencies to support prisoners while in custody and when they are released from custody.

Daily Regime


The regime of the prison involves prisoners attending work, education, gym and offending behaviour courses Monday-Friday from 08:30 – 11:30 and 14:00 – 16:00. The remaining prisoners on the wing are unlocked during the period for association which comprises of phone calls, showers and available wing activities (such as pool tables).

The Library has recently been relocated and re-furbished and opens throughout the week to allow prisoners access to reading materials. Visits take place both AM and PM from Monday-Saturday. Sunday visits (PM only) are reserved for Enhanced status prisoners. Roman Catholic and Church of England services takes place every Sunday and a Muslim service takes place every Friday in the mosque.



Prisoners can apply to work in different areas depending on level of clearance which is decided at a weekly labour board. Wages range from £6.50 to £12.50 for employed; £2.50 is paid to the unemployed prisoners. Workshops are open Monday to Friday am and pm. The workshops are shortly undergoing a review to connect where possible training opportunities within the prison with post-release jobs.

Pentonville prison- D block

Currently prisoners can be employed in a Textile Workshop, Light industrial repairs, Light Industrial packing, cleaning, catering and Prisoner Representative jobs. Education opportunities in workshops are available through City and Islington College. Workshop Six works in partnership with Speedy Hire and accreditation is available in BICS (British Institute of Cleaning Science) and Bio Hazard , Open College Network, London region (OCN, LR); Welfare at Work and Industrial Sewing Machine Use, Basic PAT testing (Portable Appliance Testing), Basic Skill Analysis is carried out as appropriate and Skills for Life examinations in literacy and numeracy.

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