HM Prison Pentonville is a Category B/C men's prison, operated by Her Majesty's Prison Service. Pentonville Prison is not actually within Pentonville itself, but is located further north, on the Caledonian Road in the Barnsbury area of the London Borough of Islington, in inner-North London, England.


The first modern prison in London, Millbank, opened in 1816. It had separate cells for 860 prisoners and proved satisfactory to the authorities who started building prisons to deal with the rapid increase in numbers occasioned by the ending of capital punishment for many crimes and a steady reduction in transportation.

Two Acts of Parliament allowed for the building of Pentonville prison, designed by Captain Joshua Jebb, Royal Engineers, for the detention of convicts sentenced to imprisonment or awaiting transportation. Construction started on 10 April 1840 and was completed in 1842. The cost was £84,186 12s 2d.

It had a central hall with five radiating wings, all visible to staff at the centre. This design, intended to keep prisoners isolated – the "separate system" 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, 13 feet (4 m) long, 7 feet (2 m) wide and 9 feet (3 m) high with little windows on the outside walls and opening on to narrow landings in the galleries.

They were 'admirably ventilated', a visitor wrote, and had a water closet, though these were replaced by communal, evil-smelling recesses because they were constantly blocked and the pipes were used for communication. The cost of keeping a prisoner at Pentonville was about 15 shillings a week in the 1840s.

The occupants of the cells, following prison discipline developed in America, were forbidden to speak to each other and in exercise tramped 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 forty suicides'. However conditions were better and healthier than at Newgate and similar older prisons, and each prisoner was made to do work such as picking coir (tarred rope) and weaving. The 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 four ounces of meat), five ounces of bread and one pound of potatoes; supper a pint of gruel and five ounces of bread.

Pentonville became the model for British prisons; a further 54 were built to the same design over 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, Malta by W. Lamb Arrowsmith in 1842. (Il-Habs, Edward Attard, p. 38)

Execution site

Prisoners under sentence of death were not housed at Pentonville Prison until the closure of Newgate in 1902, when Pentonville took over executions in north London. Condemned cells were added and an execution room built to house Newgate's gallows.

Irish revolutionary Roger Casement was hanged there on 3 August 1916 and his remains interred at the site until 1965. Udham Singh, the Indian revolutionary, who shot Sir Michael O'Dwyer (Governor of the Punjab during the Amritsar Massacre ), was also detained and hanged at Pentonville (1940).

Various other people were executed at Pentonville and all were subsequently buried at the rear of the prison in unmarked graves. These include Hawley Crippen, whose family in Coldwater, Michigan has been lobbying since 2009 for his body to be repatriated and buried in the family plot. The prison cemetery is at 51°32′44.05″N 0°06′54.62″W / 51.5455694°N 0.1151722°W / 51.5455694; -0.1151722.

The final execution at Pentonville took place on 6 July 1961 when Edwin Bush, aged 21, was hanged.

Recent history

In May 2003, an inspection report from Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons blamed overcrowding for poor standards at HMP Pentonville. 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.

A new hospital wing, built at a cost of £15 million, was opened at Pentonville Prison in early 2005. Months later inspectors reported that despite the new facilities, primary care for prisoners such as clinical supervision of nurses and drug dispensing practices were inadequate. A year later, 14 prison officers at Pentonville were suspended after allegations of trafficking and "inappropriate relations" with inmates.

In August 2007, a report from the Pentonville's Independent Monitoring Board stated that the prison was infested with rats and cockroaches and 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.

In October 2009, gross misconduct charges were brought against managers of Pentonville Prison after an investigation found that inmates had been temporarily transferred to HMP Wandsworth before inspections. The transfers, which included vulnerable prisoners, were in order to manipulate prison population figures.

The prison today

Pentonville is a local prison, holding Category B/C adult males remanded by local magistrates' and crown court, and those serving short sentences or beginning longer sentences. The prison is divided into four main wings:

  • A wing - Induction and First Night Centre (newly arrived prisoners)
  • B wing - Resettlement wing
  • C wing - Remands and convicted prisoners
  • D wing - Enhanced prisoners
  • E wing - Detoxification Unit overflow
  • F wing - Detoxification Unit
  • G wing - Education, Workshops and Offending behaviour courses

All wings have been refurbished and offer accommodation with integral sanitation, showers, hot water boiler and card phones. Prisoners have the opportunity to attend work, gym, education and offending behaviour courses and chapel.

Notable former inmates

(suggested ordering: chronological by earliest cited, or other available and relevant, year; if no year available, placed at the end, marked as 'undated')

  • 1879: Charles Peace, notorious burglar and murderer.
  • 1895: Oscar Wilde spent time in Pentonville before being transferred to Wandsworth.
  • 1910: Hawley Harvey Crippen (Dr Crippen) was hanged in the prison in 1910 after being found guilty of murdering his wife.
  • 1912: Frederick Seddon the poisoner, was hanged in the prison in 1912.
  • 1916: Sir Roger Casement
  • 1940: Udham Singh, was a Indian independence activist and hanged at Pentonville Prison On 31 July 1940
  • 1940: Arthur Koestler was detained for six weeks after arriving in England without papers in 1940. His novel Darkness at Noon was published in England while he was still in Pentonville.
  • 1946: Neville Heath was hanged in the prison in 1946 after having been convicted of murdering two women.
  • 1953: John Christie was hanged in the prison in 1953 after having been convicted of murdering his wife.
  • 1953: Timothy Evans, wrongfully accused co-tenant of John Christie.
  • 1974: Simon Dee, a radio/television personality, served 28 days for non-payment of council tax on his former Chelsea home that he had not shared with his first wife since 1971/2
  • c1980: Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers served a sentence for drug possession
  • 1984: Taki Theodoracopulos, gossip columnist for The Spectator, was imprisoned in Pentonville for three months in 1984 on a cocaine possession charge. He wrote a book about the experience titled Nothing to Declare.
  • 1994: David Irving, historian.
  • 1999: John Alford spent six weeks in Pentonville in 1999 after selling illegal drugs to a reporter.
  • 2005: Pete Doherty of The Libertines and Babyshambles spent four nights in Pentonville in February 2005 while unable to make bail on charges which were later dropped. He subsequently wrote a song about the prison, named "Pentonville", which is on the Babyshambles album Down In Albion. He spent a further 6 weeks in Pentonville between May and June of 2011 for cocaine possession.
  • 2008: Blake Fielder-Civil, husband of Amy Winehouse, was held at Pentonville for grievous bodily harm and attempting to pervert the course of justice in 2008.
  • 2009: Boy George, in 2009, for the assault and false imprisonment of a male escort.
  • 2010: George Michael, in 2010, for drug driving offences.