The first modern prison in London was Millbank which opened in 1816. it had separate cells for 860 prisoners and proved satisfactory to the Authorities. Thy then started to build more prisons to deal with the rapidly expanding numbers of people who were being sentenced to prison terms in the Country.
This was increased by the ending of many offences which carried a sentence of capital punishment and before and a steady reduction in transportation.
There were two acts of Parliament that allowed for the building of Pentonville Prison, which was designed by Captain Joshua Jebb, of the Royal Engineers. It was originally designed and built for convicts who had been sentenced to imprisonment or who were awaiting transportation. Construction was commenced on the 10th April 1840 and completed in 1842. The cost amounted to £84,186 12s 2d.
The prison had a central hall with five radiating wings, all visible to the staff at the centre. This design, intended to keep prisoners isolated – the ‘separate system’ as it was called was first used at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia – was not, as is often thought, a Panopticon. Guards had no view into individual cells from their central position.
Pentonville was designed to hold 520 prisoners under the ‘Separate System’, each having his own cell. These cells were 13 feet long by 7 feet wide with a height of some nine feet. They had little windows on the outside walls and opening out to narrow landings in the galleries.
The cost of keeping a prisoner in prison at Pentonville in the 1840’s was 15 shillings a week.
The prisoners were forbidden to speak to each other and when out in the exercise yard would tramp round in silent rows, wearing brown cloth masks. In chapel, which they had to attend every day, they sat in cubicles, their heads visible to the warder but hidden from each other.
Mental disturbances were common. An official report admitted that for every sixty thousand persons imprisoned in Pentonville there were 220 cases of insanity, 210 cases of delusion and 40 suicides.
However, conditions were better and healthier than at Newgate and similar older prisons. Each prisoner was made to do work such as picking coir (tarred rope) and weaving. This work lasted from six in the morning until seven at night… The food ration was a breakfast of 10 ounces of bread and three quarters of a pint of cocoa; dinner was half a pint of soup (or 4 ounces of meat), five ounces of bread and a pound of potatoes. Supper was a pint of gruel and five ounces of bread.
Pentonville became the model for British prisons; a further 54 prisons were built on very similar lines over the next six years and hundreds throughout the British Empire. For instance, Pentonville was used as a model for the eventual construction of Corradino Prison in Rahal Gdid, in Malta by W. Lamb Arrowsmith in 1842.
The Execution Site;
Prisoners under the sentence of death were not housed at Pentonville Prison until the closure of Newgate Prison in 1902, when Pentonville Prison took over the executions in North London. Condemned Cells were added and an execution room was built to house Newgate’s Gallows. At the same time Pentonville took over from Newgate the function of being the training location for future executioners.
Irish Revolutionary, Roger Casement was hanged there on then 3rd August 1916 and his remains interred at the site until 1965. Indian Revolutionary, Udham Singh, who shot Sir Michael O’Dwyer (who was the Governor of the Punjab during the Amritsar Massacre) was also held in custody and then hanged at Pentonville in 1940.
Various other people were hanged at Pentonville including Hawley Crippen, whose family in Coldwater, Michigan has been lobbying since 2009 for his body to be repatriated and then buried in the family plot after claims arising from mitochondrial DNA analysis that he did not murder his wife. He was buried in an unmarked grave at the rear of the prison.
The final execution at Pentonville Prison took place on the 6th July 1961 when Edwin Bush, aged 21 years was hanged.
In 2006 a prisoner escaped during transit whilst between Pentonville Prison and a hospital facility.
In 2009 convicted arsonist, Julien Chautard escaped by clinging on to the underside of the prison van which had just delivered him to the gaol from Snaresbrook Crown Court. He returned four days later after giving himself up to the police.
In 2012 the convicted murderer, John Massey escaped from within the prison confines at Pentonville Prison on Wednesday 27th June. He was recaptured in Kent just two days later following what the police had called ‘An Intelligent- led operation.’
In May 2003, an inspection report from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons blamed overcrowding for poor standards at HMP Pentonville Prison. The inspection found that basic requirements for inmates such as telephones, showers and clean clothes were not being provided regularly enough. The report also noted a lack of access to education for inmates and inadequate specialised procedures for vulnerable prisoners. The inspection report also praised a number of areas of the prison including the healthcare department. The prison drugs strategy and programmes for reducing offending behaviour.
In August 2007, a report from the Pentonville’s Independent Monitoring Board stated that the prison was infested with rats and cockroaches and also had insufficient levels of staff. The report also criticised the detention conditions for mentally ill inmates, the reception facilities for new prisoners and the library provision at the Jail.