Correspondence released under FOI between the Prison Minister and the Chair of the Independent Monitoring Board at HMP Pentonville reveals a weird sense of complacency and blunders by the Ministry of Justice.
Ministers were aware of the window problems at Pentonville at the very latest in mid 2015 when they received the Independent Monitoring Boards report. Broken windows were allowing ingress of contraband. The Minister wrote to the Chair of the Independent Monitoring Board on 28 October 2015 acknowledging the problems:
But did not act in a timely manner to fix them. Implied in theMinister’s letter is that facilities at Pentonville are not ‘safe, decent and legal’. In 2015 MOJ worked out how to replace the windows and went through a process to raise money internally and procure the services and materials. Work at height in an environment like a prison can’t be easy and there are presumably special security specs for the glass. It may be related that on 1 June 2015 Carillion took over prisons maintenance as part of a contracting out exercise. In June 2015 the Secretary of State for Justice labelled HMP Pentonville as a failure.
In 2015/16 HMP Pentonville developed a chronic problem with drones shipping contraband to window sills.
The Prisons Minister in a letter to the IMB of 30 August makes clear that only a few dozen windows a year will be replaced, instead of dealing with the whole lot.
A year on from the Minister’s first letter the windows were still not fixed – there had been glitches.
On 18 October 2016 an inmate was apparently stabbed to death by another inmate. Rumour and some media reports suggest that the weapon used was a hunting knife smuggled into the prison by a drone.
On 7 November 2016 two inmates escaped through their cell window – we don’t know yet whether the systemic window problems were a factor. But in general, one should not be able to get out of prison cell windows nor smuggle in ‘diamond cutters’ to do so.
The Chair of the Independent Monitoring Board in a letter of 10 November 2016 also released under FOI is clearly frustrated that the Secretary of State and her team at MOJ haven’t seized the issues with any sense of urgency.
The local MP, Emily Thornberry writes on 8 December to stalwart local Councillor Paul Convery covering a letter from the Minister to her, saying that the windows are due to be replaced ‘this week’. But she notes that the Minister isn’t clear how many will be done.
MOJ, the Prison Service, NOMS etc have an obligation in law to maintain a ‘relevant duty of care’ towards inmates and staff. At the core of this is taking reasonable measures to stop weapons being smuggled into prison – this isn’t just planning such measures, but implementing them in a timely manner. It is entirely reasonable to expect that the windows in a prison can’t systematically be broken. Keeping the physical perimeter secure against contraband including weapons is at the heart of a relevant duty of care.
In the slow moving world of public administration and procurement, taking over a year to replace 80-odd high risk windows might not seem so surprising. But that’s the wrong way to look at it. The Minister himself knew that the windows were being used to smuggle contraband in Summer 2015 because the Independent Monitors had told him. MOJ, NOMS, the prisons service etc would have known this long, long beforehand. Having worked in large government bureaucracies myself, I know that a diktat from a Minister can act as a massive stimulus to solving tricky problems and cutting through cr*p. That the windows were not fixed at Pentonville within months of coming to the Minister’s attention is astonishing and in my opinion, simple negligence by MOJ.