A former inmate, now a volunteer prison chaplain serving in the notoriously difficult HMP Pentonville, describes how prison officers and convicts have not only survived a cruel pandemic largely intact but have seen the introduction of groundbreaking and long-overdue reforms
HMP Pentonville entered the pandemic with a frightening start when two well-respected prison officers, Peter Bovid and Patrick Beckford, died with 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.”
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 equipment and no testing facilities.