Pentonville prison governor: We can’t lose more jail staff

Prisoners are confined to their cells as Pentonville loses officers to the government’s border force and police recruitment drives

Friday, 4th September 2020 — By Calum Fraser

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Ian Blakeman: ‘It is very difficult for us. Prison work isn’t always the most glamorous’

THE government’s border force and police recruitment drives are drawing officers away from prisons, the new governor of Pentonville has said.

In his first media interview since taking over at the Caledonian Road jail in December last year, Ian Blakeman told the Tribune that he is trying to make a “more exciting narrative” around prison work in a bid to stave off a potential exodus of staff.

This comes after the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) warned that staffing levels at Pentonville were already “on the brink”, leaving prisoners confined to their cells for 23 hours a day and allowed to shower just twice a week.

“Yes, we have definitely seen the impact of the recruitment drives,” Mr Blakeman said.

“You have recruitment drives for border force agents and police officers. Their pay is very competitive, you get free public transport as a Met Police officer and that’s appealing.

“It is very difficult for us. Prison work isn’t always the most glamorous. The trick for me is to create a more exciting narrative around what a prison officer does.”

Pentonville prison

Prime minister Boris Johnson made the recruitment of 25,000 police officers a central pole of his election pledge last December.

Meanwhile, home secretary Priti Patel has pushed for more border force officers.

There are about 470 members of staff on the payroll at Pentonville and the POA estimates that this is about 40 short of what is necessary to run at full capacity.

Pentonville was built to hold no more than 694 men, but a count last week found that there were 1019 inmates.

Mr Blakeman added: “A lot of staff here are saying that border force work looks easier for better pay. Prison work is challenging.

“It is very appealing to a lot of our staff. There is a similarity in the work but there is more money involved.

“I am hopeful we will not get the exodus of staff we have had in the past because maybe the job market doesn’t look quite as buoyant as it did.”

Asked how he would manage if staff were at some stage forced to isolate because of the coronavirus, Mr Blakeman said: “That’s a big worry for us. We have just enough staff to run what we have to run every day at the moment.”

He was appointed Pentonville governor after a string of bad inspectorate reports.

In the latest report in March, it was noted that assaults on staff were up 30 per cent along with a general rise in violence. This lead to the inspectorate writing a letter to the secretary of state.

However, the inspectors added that they had “some confidence in the plans proposed by an enthusiastic new senior management team”.

Mr Blakeman, who has previously worked at HMP Bullingdon and HMP Bedford, said: “When I started staff morale was very low. The staff were not in a good place. My aim was to boost them as much as possible. If you have happy staff they treat prisoners in a better way. It was a very conscious decision to empower senior staff.”

Over the years, inspectors have also noted the high level of drug use.

The Tribune previously reported on the way some criminals were cutting holes in the net surrounding the prison and using drones to fly drugs in over the walls.

This year, the Ministry of Justice installed new X-ray body scanners at entrances to the jail in a bid to crackdown on contraband smuggling.

Mr Blakeman said: “The body scanner has been brilliant. We can target prisoners newly arriving into the prison. That has stopped a certain amount of drugs and funds being smuggled into the prison.

“The staff have taken me through packages we have found and it is incredible, it’s clear as day.”

However, he added: “We have people throwing stuff over the perimeter which we intercept on quite a regular basis.”

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