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Opinion

A chaplain’s view on prison in the time of Covid

Ex-Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken served time for perjury in 1999. He’s now an Anglican priest and chaplain in Pentonville prison. Covid brought panic and fear, he says – but also positive change

HMP Pentonville entered the pandemic with a frightening start when two well-respected prison officers, Bovil Peter and Patrick Beckford, died of Covid-19 in the first week of April 2020. 

“I came in that Monday morning feeling really scared that we might be entering a war zone,” recalled governor Ian Blakeman. “I was desperately worried about the potential death toll. We thought we could lose 80 men quickly if the infection became virulent.”

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Experienced prison staff are used to coping on a daily basis with crises which range from punch-ups to flu epidemics. But no one had seen drama anything like this. Its surprise and scale soon sent fear stalking along the wings of our 178-year-old North London prison.

Our unpreparedness for the unknown caused some overreaction and chaos. A temporary morgue was installed, complete with body bags. Sleeping facilities were arranged for officers to stay overnight in the prison. Initially we had no face masks, no PPE and no testing facilities.

Internal information circulated erratically. When the first consignment of face masks arrived they were followed by an edict from Public Health England which instructed the prison not to use them except in critical situations. So all prisoners and officers were ordered to stop wearing their masks. As the military would say: “Order, counter-order, disorder!” 

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Staff shortages became a big problem. At an early stage over 157 Pentonville uniformed officers out of 450 were “off sick”, a label which ranged from the seriously ill to the imaginatively precautionary. Deploying those who did report for duty proved challenging.

On the worst of the early days there were only 39 officers available to guard our 1,100 prisoners, spread across seven wings and 35 landings. 

“The biggest surprise was how most of the men were prepared to take the problems on the chin,” said custodial manager Jamie Regan. “They had to put up with multiple restrictions and deprivations. They were banged up in their cells for over 23 hours a day. But, on the whole, their morale and their attitudes remained amazingly good.”

One inmate, who was on constant watch for self-harming, kept shouting: ‘We’re going to be left here to die!’

Old lags, like old soldiers, can be steady on parade. Pentonville put in place a core group of ‘red bands’ (trusted wing cleaners), ‘listeners’ (Samaritan-trained suicide preventers) and ‘insiders’ (information providers to new prisoners). They did their jobs well, had special permission to move along their wings, and set a tone of stoical acceptance.

Inevitably, the steadiness was not universal. In my hearing, one semi-hysterical F-Wing inmate, who was on constant watch for self-harming, kept shouting: “We’re going to be left here to die!” He was silenced by serial offender, Charlie C, who retorted: “Well, you ain’t dead yet! And if you go on cutting yourself they’ll take you to hospital where you’ll meet so many Covids you’ll be brown bread much sooner.” 

Humour down on the wings was transcended at the highest levels of the prison by innovative decision-making. Their first initiative was to enter into ‘command mode’, which is prison service jargon for the governor taking autonomous decisions outside the rulebook.

The first move was to write an ERMP (Emergency Regime Management Plan), which in turn created an RCU (Reverse Cohort Unit). These Ministry of Justice acronyms read incomprehensibly. Implementing them on the ground was the equivalent of solving a Rubik’s Cube.   

It was soon noticed that good neighbourliness and prisoner-officer mutual politeness became the new normal

A-Wing’s 200 prisoners, most of whom had been in situ for months, had to decamp in order to create the new RCU. Every day A-Wing takes in around 40 new arrivals from courts like Wood Green, Highbury, Snaresbrook, Chelmsford and the Old Bailey. They all get tested in reception. The few who test positive are escorted in heavy PPE gear to J-Wing for isolation. The rest are kept in 20 self-contained bubbles, segregated from other bubbles with separate feeding, showering, medication and exercise arrangements until it is safe for them to move to one of the remaining six wings of the prison. 

This is a logistical nightmare, yet it has now operated successfully for almost a year. So far this year we have had not one single new in-prison Covid case since mid-January – a remarkable result.  

Fear was a calming influence. There were big falls in assaults and ‘kickings off’ (outbursts of bad temper). The number of prisoners getting ‘nicked’ for bad behaviour fell from about 30 per day to two or three a day. Self-harming cases and numbers of ACCTs (the acronym for men on watch for mental health problems) came down dramatically. It was soon noticed that prisoner-to-prisoner good neighbourliness and prisoner-officer mutual politeness became the new normal. 

Some of the changes in tone were caused by the introduction of new technology.  Prisons are notoriously behind the curve when it comes to using even old technology. Until this year the most reliable method of communicating with our prisoners was to push a piece of paper under their cell doors. Their phone calls had to be made from open booths on the landings, a system that gave little privacy and frequent friction in the queues.

Thanks to the pandemic, every Pentonville prisoner now has an in-cell telephone enabling him to call out to friends or relatives at any time of the day or to call internal helplines such as listeners and chaplaincy. The wiring for these in-cell phones was installed in 2019, but it took the Covid crisis to prompt a massive delivery of the missing handsets. 

Then, in an inspired move, Blakeman decreed that every prisoner should automatically be given a £5-a-week phone credit to facilitate calls to his nearest and dearest. The intangible benefits of these suddenly improved phone links between prisoners and their families made a major contribution to keeping Pentonville calm. So did the creation of a Zoom system called ‘purple visits’ which enabled families to link up virtually. 

The spiritual life of the prison has been well cared for by chaplains going into overdrive with pastoral visits and support

“Governor one is a straight shooter. He tells it like it is,” was a characteristic accolade I heard from a vulnerable prisoner on F-Wing. 

The most important innovation on the communications front during the Covid crisis has been a new briefing meeting at 1.30pm every day led by Blakeman for his 24 custody managers and 21 senior officers. Having attended these meetings, I would describe them as a model of decisive leadership and effective communication. The entire top and middle management of the prison attend. A daily briefing note written by the security governor Kat Lawrence is read out, questions are asked, and problems get solved. Everyone goes back to their wings knowing what is happening, what has got to be done and what needs to be relayed to the landings.  

These briefing meetings were transformational. They broke the mould of the old-fashioned hierarchical divisions in prison management. Senior officers became the new front line of the Covid team effort. By their dedication to duty and by the flexible originality of the way they operated what is being called ‘the new jailcraft’ they rose to the challenges of the pandemic. 

Take for example the ‘three musketeers’ who have transformed A-Wing from being the notoriously chaotic hellhole of the prison into a calm, safe and low- infection regime. SOs Joseph Spall, Tristian Joseph and David Ralfe are young men (average age 29) of differing backgrounds and talents. They are comparatively new recruits to the prison service which has promoted them fast. 

The most colourful of the trio, in terms of background, is David Ralfe. After earning a first-class English literature degree at Cambridge he trained to be a comic actor at the Jacques Lecoq theatre school in Paris. One day he read a newspaper article about the new HM Prisons and Probation Service graduate entry scheme, applied for it, and four years later is running what may well be the most demanding wing in any British prison. Ralfe gives a tongue-in-cheek explanation for his career change: “I guess I was attracted to acting because it is full of interesting people and stories. Pentonville is even richer in people and stories!”  

I was amazed at the height of Covid to find how good the atmosphere was on the wings

Although the heaviest burdens of the pandemic have fallen on the wing officers, many others have made exceptional efforts to cope with emergency. The PEIs (physical education instructors, headed by SO Andy Turner) moved their equipment out of the indoor gyms into the exercise yards and have worked wonders in keeping the prisoners fit through outdoor workouts. 

The chaplaincy has done its bit too. Although the mosque, the chapel and the multi-faith room have been closed for services, the spiritual life of the prison has been well cared for by chaplains going into overdrive with pastoral visits and support.  

Sometimes the chaplain’s role is full of sadness. Too often we have to be the bearer of bad and sometimes tragic news.  We have done a great deal of bereavement counselling and often arrange Zoom participation in family funerals. In August I conducted the heartbreaking funeral of a 27-year-old prisoner who had committed suicide. 

Yet there are joys too. I was on duty from December 24 to January 1 and expected to encounter plenty of doom, gloom and tears during this usually tense period. Inevitably there were some sad encounters. But on the whole I was amazed at the height of Covid to find how good the atmosphere was on the wings. Why? 

“Well, we’re all in this mess together now aren’t we?” said John, a bulky red band, as he vigorously wiped down tables with disinfectant on Christmas morning. “If the screws can keep smilin’ when they’d rather not be away from their families either, the least we can do is to keep our peckers up too.” 

Pentonville has had the reputation of being a notoriously bad prison. Its infrastructure remains Dickensian, still inhabited by too many cockroaches and rodents. Sixty per cent of our inmates are young prisoners on remand facing serious charges. They used to wait three or four months for their cases to come to court. Now they wait 18 months or more. The logjam in the courts is having a more damaging effect on the mood in the prison than Covid. 

In the overcrowded and dangerous environment of a prison there is a case for including selected officers and prisoners in a priority group for vaccination. But the system is deaf to this argument. Only 23 of our 1,100 prisoners and none of our 450 officers have been offered the vaccine. This means that for several more months we will remain a high-risk environment. 

Yet The Times They Are a-Changin’ at Pentonville. We have shown what greater autonomy, clear leadership, good team spirit, innovative jailcraft and more devolution of power to SO Wing Officers can do. These reforms are likely to endure. What a paradox that a cruel pandemic, in a notoriously difficult prison, can produce so many good and groundbreaking changes.  

Jonathan Aitken is an Anglican priest and voluntary prison chaplain in HMP Pentonville. A version of this article was originally published by The Tablet 

This article is from a special edition of The Big Issue magazine. Get a copy of ‘Locked Up in Lockdown‘ in The Big Issue Shop or purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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