Emily Thornberry Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury
Many of you will have seen the reports today that a prisoner in his 20s in Pentonville prison was fatally stabbed yesterday. Two more inmates were injured, and two have been arrested.
It goes without saying that for a young man to be stabbed to death while in the custody of the state is unacceptable, whatever the circumstances, and my heart goes out to their family. But sadly, in Pentonville, it does not come as the shock that it should.
Whilst most of my constituency today is unrecognisable compared to 1842, Pentonville prison remains largely as it was, completely inappropriate for modern needs.
Despite the efforts of staff to make the best of difficult circumstances, the prison is overcrowded, understaffed, and plain dangerous both for staff and prisoners. A prison built to house 900 inmates now holds 1,300, and there is scant provision for the most vulnerable amongst them.
It has the additional problem that -; as a prison primarily used to hold inmates on remand and on short sentences -; its high turnover makes for a naturally unstable and volatile environment, not helped by the easy availability of, and roaring trade in, drugs.
Drugs, mobile phones and other contraband are routinely smuggled into the prison by drones, or thrown over the walls, and the exterior of the prison is patrolled not by prison officers, but by gang members operating that trade and intimidating local residents.
Despite this drastic situation, and the desperate need for investment and refurbishment, there is a Catch-22 situation.
Pentonville has long been earmarked for closure, most recently in the cuts plans set out in 2015 by then Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who singled it out as “the most dramatic example of failure within the prison estate”.
As long as that promise to close it remains in place but unfulfilled, the authorities will always think that spending money improving Pentonville or tackling its problems is just a waste. Why paper over the cracks in a wall you’re planning to knock down?
So every year, conditions continue to deteriorate, and nothing is done. The drug problem gets worse, the violence increases, the staff get ever more stretched.
It should not have taken a fatal stabbing to bring attention to these problems, and to highlight the fact that maintaining Pentonville in its present condition is simply not safe or sustainable.
The Home Office need to act and act quickly to close Pentonville, rehouse its prisoners, and build a new remand prison for London, before any more tragedies like this occur. That is long overdue, and it cannot wait any longer.