A prisoner has died and two others were critically injured in a stabbing at HMP Pentonville, leading to claims the prison system is in a “dark place”.
The man in his 20s died at the London prison on Tuesday. The injured were taken to hospital with knife wounds. Two prisoners, aged 34 and 26, have been arrested on suspicion of murder.
The Prison Governors Association (PGA) said inmates were living in “squalid and brutal conditions”. The government said it is trying to reduce violence.
It is understood the stabbings happened in a prison wing and inmates were then moved into the jail’s exercise yard. Following the attack, a PGA spokesman said: “Our members, uniformed staff and prisoners are working and living in squalid and brutal conditions which should not be tolerated in a country that is one of the richest in the Western world. “If a society is judged by how it treats those it locks up, then we are in a very dark place.”
The association has renewed calls for a public inquiry amid what it said was an “unprecedented” rise in prison violence and suicides.
In response to those comments, a Ministry of Justice (MoJ) spokesperson said the justice secretary had made clear that safety in prisons was “fundamental to the proper functioning of our justice system and a vital part of our reform plans”. “We are fully committed to addressing the significant increase in violence, self-harm and self-inflicted deaths in our prisons,” the spokesperson added.
The MoJ said measures would include spending an extra £14m in 10 prisons and increasing staffing levels by more than 400 prison officers.
Pentonville’s Governor Kevin Reilly has noted that in recent weeks people had “felt anxious” about violence at the jail.
Writing in an internal newsletter, Mr Reilly said reducing violence was one of his “top five priorities”. He said although there had been a slight reduction in violent incidents during the month, people remained concerned.
In July the Pentonville Independent Monitoring Board said the government should “knock down” or “urgently upgrade” the 174-year-old prison. The board said the jail was “decrepit” and blamed the former legal high Spice for driving an illicit economy which in turn had led to violence, self-harm and bullying.
In its annual report on Pentonville, the board said there were 16 violent incidents each week but the number had fallen year on year. The Pentonville death is the third killing this year in jails in England and Wales, and the 11th since the start of 2015.
Visitors queuing to see friends and relatives inside the prison spoke of their safety concerns. “My son is 21. I haven’t felt the same since I heard the news,” one woman said. “As a mother everyone tells you at least you know where he is and he is safe – but actually he’s not safe, is he? “No matter their age or what they have done, no-one deserves to die in prison.”
Former prisons minister Andrew Selous insisted money was being invested in recruiting new staff and building modern jails. “What has happened is horrendous,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I have met the parents of prisoners who have been murdered and it is horrific and my deepest sympathy goes out to all those affected.” “The government absolutely gets the seriousness of the violence issues, there is a huge amount of work being done to reduce violence.”
The director of the Prison Reform Trust, Peter Dawson, called for fewer people to be sent to jail to “reduce the pressure” on prisons. “The Victorians thought [Pentonville] could accommodate 900 prisoners… we say it can accommodate up to 1300. “That means in practice that almost everybody in a prison like Pentonville can expect to share a cell which the Victorians thought was fit for one person.”
No prison officers are understood to have been injured in the attack, the Prison Officers’ Association said.
In a statement, the union said “the unprecedented rise in violence in all of our prisons must not be underestimated”. It added: “We now ask for the Ministry of Justice to fully investigate this matter and the underlying problems within the prison estate.”
In July 2015, the then Justice Secretary Michael Gove said: “Pentonville is the most dramatic example of failure within the prison estate, but its problems, while more acute than anywhere else, are very far from unique,”
A Prison Service spokesman said: “Police are investigating an incident at HMP Pentonville. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”
Category B prison, which means its inmates are believed to pose a high risk to other people, but do not require maximum security
The Victorian jail, in north London, opened in 1842
The prison holds more than 1,200 adults