Teenagers attack staff ‘for honour’ in Feltham A youth prison

Reported in The Times today 6th August 2019.

Inmates are attacking officers as a “mark of honour” at a young offender institution plagued by gang allegiances and rivalries.

Staff at Feltham A in west London are also being assaulted by teenagers when they try to stop them attacking each other. Separating gangs has dominated prison life to such an extent that any work and education routines have collapsed, causing more resentment and violence, according to Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons.

He has demanded that the justice secretary produce an action plan for improvement after inspectors found a “collapse” in safety and care.

One prison officer said that the “perfect cocktail” of inexperienced staff, gang rivalries and a hard core of violent teenagers aged 15 to 18 was behind the rising unrest. “There is a huge issue with gangs, members of postcode gangs in London, who are in the jail. They have an ethos of loyalty to the gang and they want to attack members of other gangs in the units. We have had situations where they are actually fighting staff to get to each other. It is a degree of honour for them to get at the other person,” the officer said.

The officer said that inmates were also attacking staff to prove themselves to their peers at the institution which holds just over 100 offenders aged 15 to 18, many of whom have been convicted of violent crimes including murder.

“They attack staff. There is an honour in attacking staff. They get an elevated position in their own peer group if they attack staff. They go to the top of the pile,” he said.

Staff have suffered serious injuries including broken jaws and damaged eye sockets. In April, 13 prison officers needed hospital treatment after they were attacked by inmates. Figures show that assaults rose from 230 to 325 in the six months to June, including a rise of attacks on staff from 62 to 152.

The prison has adopted a “keep apart” policy where inmates from rival groups are kept separate. This involves officers escorting them to education and healthcare appointments as well as ensuring that they are not in the same classes or at the gym together. As a result many are unable to get education or training and remain in their cells for long periods.

“They spend longer in their cells because we have to keep them apart and they get isolated and frustrated. Their coping skills are not good so they use violence as a way of getting attention”, the officer said.

The difficulties facing the prison have been compounded by the loss of experienced officers as a result of budget cuts. They are now being replaced by new staff with limited skills in how to cope with troubled and disruptive teenagers.

“Some recruits are not much older than the prisoners. They are young and have very limited experience to draw upon when dealing with young men who have complex needs and are violent,” the officer said.

Ministers stopped sending teenagers to Feltham A after Mr Clarke’s demand for urgent action to deal with what he described as an “extraordinary” decline in safety and care.

A prison service spokeswoman said: “The governor, who is still relatively new in post, is working hard to drive improvement in an establishment which has one of the highest and most concentrated proportions of violent offenders in the country. She and her team are incredibly dedicated to turning Feltham A around and we will respond with a formal action plan.”