As part of my preparation for a new role chairing an independent panel looking at ways of reducing deaths in custody, I spent the day in Holloway and Pentonville Prisons.  I had never previously been inside a prison – a fact treated with incredulity both by the civil servant accompanying me and by a group of prisoners I spent some time talking to in Holloway (the latter group assured me that I looked as though I would fit in very well – a remark clearly capable of a variety of interpretations).

I won’t prejudge here any of the conclusions of the panel I will be chairing, but I was struck by the differences in the architecture of the two prisons. 

Pentonville was built in 1842 and was the model for another 54 prisons built around Britain (and the Empire, as it was then). It is built with five wings, radiating star-like from a central hall.  Holloway was built ten years later in 1852.  It was originally a mixed prison – being converted to women-only in the 1860s.  The feel and layout of the two prisons are not at all alike.  Pentonville would be familiar in appearance to those reared on BBC’s Porridge.  Holloway, by contrast, although very different, also seemed very familiar.  I only realised what it reminded me of when I was told that the prison was initially built to be a hospital, but when it was completed it was then decided that there was a greater need locally for a prison.  There is at least one nearby hospital in North London that before its recent refurbishment ….

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