Rats, overcrowding and urgent riot warnings — my day inside a London jail

Katie Strick accompanies prison officer Jenny Warren at HMP Pentonville in north London (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Katie Strick accompanies prison officer Jenny Warren at HMP Pentonville in north London (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

It’s Monday afternoon at HMP Pentonville — a men’s prison and young offender institution in Islington, north London — and officer Jenny Warren is talking to one of the inmates about the crisis in Britain’s prison system.

“This place wasn’t built for 1,200 prisoners... It’s got to breaking point,” says the prisoner, a man in his forties who’s spent more than two decades in and out of jail. He makes a quip about the poor quality of the mashed potato before discussing more serious matters of daily life behind bars at the Victorian Category B jail: the violence and overcrowding; the piping issues that regularly leave them without hot water; the state of the kitchens, which are reported to be overrun with rats.

Monitors said prisoners were crammed into 12ft by 8ft cells (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Archive)
Monitors said prisoners were crammed into 12ft by 8ft cells (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Archive)

Warren, 26, a psychology graduate and one of an increasing number of smart young (predominantly female) recruits at HMP Pentonville, tells me issues like this have certainly added to the challenges of what was already a high-pressure job, particularly when staffing is approaching dangerously low levels. But at least the current overcrowding is better than in December, when inmate numbers tend to skyrocket as drug dealers increase their sales for party season and many criminals seek the guarantee of a bed and meal on Christmas Day.

That’s the thing about prisons, she says: they reflect society. “A lot of people don’t really want to put money into prisons — and I understand why. But every single one of these prisoners will be released into society and if we can’t support and help them here, then it only has a turmoil effect in the community. Prisoners are society’s problem. I think that’s what a lot of the general public don’t understand.”

HMP Pentonville (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
HMP Pentonville (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

Warren is right to be concerned about the repercussions of the issues she sees on the prison floor every day. My shift accompanying her and her fellow prison officers comes amid a torrent of ever-more frightening headlines about the state of the prison system in recent months, with authorities warning that our country’s jails have become “tinderboxes” of overcrowding and violence and that the “entire criminal justice systems stands on the precipice of failure” as the UK prison population hits a record high of 88,000 — up by 93 per cent since 1990 — and assaults on staff continue to skyrocket.

"The situation is worse than I thought it was," new prime minister Sir Keir Starmer said this week, following the news that Britain's jails were set to run out of space within days. "This is a total failure of the last government . . . to have left a situation where there are simply not enough prison places for the number of prisoners... I’m pretty shocked that it’s been allowed to get into that situation. It’s reckless to allow them to get into that place.”

Starmer acknowledged that the crisis was not one he could "fix overnight", but that he'll certainly try. His new government — featuring key-cutting CEO James Timpson as prisons minister and barrister Shabana Mahmood as justice secretary — is already set to announce a set of emergency measures to free up space in jails, including automatically releasing prisoners on “standard determinate sentences” after they have served 40 per cent of their sentence (the current rule is 50 per cent). There will be exemptions for sexual and serious violent offenders.

Authorities are warning that the UK’s jails have become “tinderboxes” of overcrowding and violence

The announcement has prompted public outcry but Starmer's supporters say he's been left with little choice. Prison staff are reportedly quitting in their droves, with the UK’s total prison staff a tenth smaller than it was in 2009 and increasing numbers of former prison officers speaking out on the grim realities of life behind bars, from 15-hour shifts and sewage in cells to tuberculosis and other infectious diseases being rife. “Nothing could have prepared me for my time working in prison... it’s a really frustrating place and 100% getting worse,” says Gen Glaister, 28, a former prison officer who left the job three years ago after catching TB in a London jail.

"If you want to drive somebody insane, you make them go dirty, don't change their clothes and don't feed them, but that's what we're doing," says Liz Bridge, a former chaplain at HMP Wandsworth, who spoke out about the “unbearable” conditions at the prison last month. Prison officer salaries start at just £32,851 a year, while custodial managers like Warren earn £41,872.

With two thirds of prisons officially overcrowded and some reportedly less than four weeks from running out of space, prison governors are warning of a “summer of violent unrest” if this dangerous concoction of overcrowding and understaffing is not urgently fixed. “We are quite near to complete chaos at the moment,” president of the Prison Governors’ Association Tom Wheatley said last month, warning of a repeat of the 1990 Strangeways riot when one prisoner was killed, 147 officers and 47 inmates were injured after prisoners took control of a jail in Manchester for 25 days. “If nothing [is] done, I would be professionally very, very worried by the August Bank Holiday,” a senior prison said, echoing Wheatley's warnings last week.

Gen Glaister, an ex-London prison officer
Gen Glaister, an ex-London prison officer

Warnings of chaos and riots might be more closely associated with prisons like HMP Wandsworth, the south-west London jail recently put into special measures after the escape of prisoner Daniel Khalife last summer and a video of a member of staff having sex with an inmate this week, but Warren and her colleagues at HMP Pentonville are far from immune from the problems blighting Britain’s prison network. Theirs is one of the oldest jails in the UK and similarly to Wandsworth, the challenges of housing more than 1,200 prisoners and hundreds of staff inside a crumbling Victorian building are real and wide-ranging: plumbing problems mean the hot water regularly goes down; a lack of space means there’s little room for workshops, education or restraining violent prisoners; and mould and structural problems mean cells are regularly out of action, leaving the remaining accommodation bursting at the seams.

“It’s a sh**hole here,” a prisoner smoking a vape tells me on G wing, the prison’s biggest, where men sleep two to a cell narrower than my wingspan and crammed with a desk, bunk beds, toilet and a sink. The atmosphere is surprisingly jovial, I comment to Warren as inmates do pull-ups off the railings and play card games around us. She agrees, telling me this is one of the biggest misconceptions around life inside jail — but the atmosphere can change quickly so she is always on high alert.

Jenny Warren inside a one man cell at HMP Pentonville (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Jenny Warren inside a one man cell at HMP Pentonville (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

Ten minutes later, shouting erupts two floors above us and Warren nods knowingly, clutching her giant set of keys. Breaking up fights is a daily reality of the job and she was scared when she started the role at 22, but not anymore. “The first three months were the hardest because they’re trying to find out where your line is. But you quickly build a rapport with the prisoners and some are hilarious,” she says, clearly fond of the men she’s become something of a mother figure to day-to-day. “I’m not here to judge — I don’t know what half these guys are in for. My job is about supporting them. It comes back to what they taught us in training: every person is one mistake away from being in prison.”

Glaister, who’s now written a bestselling book about her two years working in a London jail, says violent outbreaks are common behind bars and even more so when conditions are poor. “People are a product of their environment,” she tells me after my visit to Pentonville. “How can you expect anyone to turn their life around when they’re locked in a crumbling building everyone has given up on? Poor conditions and overcrowding... It’s telling these guys that we don’t give a sh*t about them, and these are all things that can lead to increased violence.”

Poor conditions and overcrowding is telling these guys that we don’t give a sh*t about them

Glaister left the job three years ago after being hospitalised with TB — a known risk of working in an environment where infectious disease rates are 10 times higher than among the general population. Like Warren, she loved the job before getting ill, and thinks the narrative around prisons needs changing because ultimately they’re about people — and most people she meets in prison are fundamentally good. She lists some of the most memorable from her two years on the inside: the inmates who just wanted to laugh and hug and chit-chat about first dates; the Albanian men making cheese from their cells; another man who looked like he was about to punch her in the face but actually just wanted to show her the garden he’d been growing beside his bed. “Sure, these people are capable of violence — but we all are,” she says. “It doesn’t take a psychopath or a bad person to commit a crime, it just takes a young boy who hasn’t been given what he deserves.”

Glaister now works in the third sector, focusing on supporting prisoners after their release. She is damning of the current state of the UK justice system, arguing that “the absolute last thing prison does is prepare you for a life without committing crime on the outside” and insisting no amount of training could have prepared her for the realities of the job (officers are trained in everything from fitness to use of force, even firefighting). Her book recounts many of these realities in unflinching detail, from avoiding going to the toilet because of the relentless smell of damp and dirty to prisoners slitting their own wrists using tuna tins — experiences that often lead to burnout or drive staff away completely.

The Prison Officer by Gen Glaister (Gen Glaister)
The Prison Officer by Gen Glaister (Gen Glaister)

The Ministry of Justice recently found prison and probation staffing to be at dangerously low levels, with half of staff having less than five years’ experience and mental health issues being rife. Recent figures found that workers took the equivalent of more than 770 years of mental health sick leave last year — up by 148 per cent since 2018.

The result, at least in Glaister’s experience, can often be a culture of despondency among staff. “There tends to be a real feeling that they can’t actually do anything to help, because they’re working in a system which is exhausted,” she explains. “Prisoners come to us saying they’re suicidal or don’t have a home to go to and all we can do is refer them to other parts of the prison which are understaffed or have given up. It’s a really frustrating place to be — there are so many dead ends.”

Custodial Manager Jenny Warren pictured on the landing outside a one man cell at HMP Pentonville (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Custodial Manager Jenny Warren pictured on the landing outside a one man cell at HMP Pentonville (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

That sense of frustration is not for want of trying, of course. Warren, one of several young female officers at HMP Pentonville, is clearly a hard-working and well-respected member of the prison community, chit-chatting with inmates about their morning and speaking to colleagues about how they can best improve the quality of the food for the prisoners they look after. She is proud of many of the initiatives that have been introduced during her four-year tenure: workshops with Redemption Coffee Roasters and the Samaritans; yoga and other wellbeing classes; the introduction of the country’s first-ever neurodiverse wings for inmates with autism, brain-injury, learning difficulties and even dementia — already credited with a reduction in violence and improved staff morale.

But Warren still feels Glaister’s frustration with the clear failures in the system — proof of which can be seen in the fact that they see so many of the same faces returning. “The whole point is we want fewer people going into prison,” she says, pointing to the man we’d just seen walking through through the prison gates onto the street, a bag of belongings slung over his shoulder. The strange nature of the job is she hopes to never see an inmate again when they leave. The sad reality is that all too often she does.

Humans are incredibly complex and we are ultimately a product of all the random events that have happened throughout our life

For Glaister, the solution to fixing this reoffending rate is threefold: tackling the indicators that a young person is going to succumb to a life of crime, such as being excluded from school, growing up in care and living below the poverty line. Investing in therapeutic services in prisons like healthy eating and mental health initiatives will also help, as will ensuring people leaving prison have a whole care team around them, from mental health professionals to people who can help them apply for universal credit. “A lot of people leaving prison will be released onto their step-dad’s sofa as a 33-year-old man,” she explains. “For those people, the chances of being sent back to prison are high.”

Investing in staff recruitment and retention is also paramount, Glaister adds. She might not be in the job today but like Warren, she is passionate about recommending it as a rewarding and varied profession. “One minute you are a teacher helping a prisoner with their reading for a test. Then you’re a nurse responding to someone who’s self-harmed, then you’re a police officer breaking up a fight. You’re a coach, a mentor, you’re everything for those guys,” she says. “It taught me that humans are incredibly complex beings and that we are ultimately a product of all the random events that have happened throughout our life. It was the biggest privilege I’ve ever had.”

Prison and probation staff have taken the equivalent of 774 years mental health sick leave over the last year (PA) (PA Wire)
Prison and probation staff have taken the equivalent of 774 years mental health sick leave over the last year (PA) (PA Wire)

Warren agrees that the job feels like a privilege. Yes it’s exhausting and takes its toll on her personal life. No they’re not paid enough. But like any public service job, the rewards are the human ones: helping that prisoner to find their first job or open a bank account; saving their life after a self-harm incident. It’s like any of the public services, really: it’s about working with the public. The main difference here is these are the ones who made a mistake.

As I check back through security at the end of the day, I remember my fears on arriving at the prison a few hours earlier — and it reminds me of something one inmate said to me during our discussions with Warren, about the fear many prisoners feel on being released. “They’ve got nowhere to live. No one to look after them. They go back to using [drugs]. Then they’re back in here,” he tells me. “I’ve seen it with so many people.”

 (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

It feels totally counterintuitive, in many ways, to think of people being better supported inside prison than on the outside; that some would even go as far as choosing rats, cold showers and disease-ridden cells over freedom on the other side of prison gates. But after my day with Warren and her colleagues at HMP Pentonville, I understand why some people might choose those things if the alternative is no bed or meal at all.

Fix our society and we’ll fix our prisons, was the message my conversations with Glaister and Warren left me with. “The ingredients we give so many people in certain environments in the UK are the exact ingredients you need for someone to join a life of crime,” says Glaister.

Having seen the realities even just for a day — the conditions, the relationships between the inmates and staff, the resilience of the prison officers despite their shrinking ranks — I’m inclined to believe they might be right.