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.”

HMYOI Feltham Children’s Unit: Deterioration in Safety and Care after Period of Drift

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Safety and care in the children’s unit at HMYOI Feltham A in west London were found in 2019 to have deteriorated over the year since the previous inspection.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said the young offender institution appeared to have suffered some “drift” during a period without a governor.

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Mr Clarke said that in 2018 inspectors “reported on a much-improved institution where good leadership had resulted in outcomes across three of our healthy prison tests – safety, care and resettlement – being reasonably good.

“More needed to be done to improve purposeful activity and we cautioned that any loss of leadership focus could expose the fragilities, which at the time we felt characterised some of the improvements we had observed. In light of the clear warning in our last report, it was disappointing to be told that… there had been an interregnum when Feltham had been left without a governor for a period of five months.

“A new governor was now in post and beginning to stabilise the establishment, but it was evident to us that there had been a degree of drift resulting in deteriorating outcomes, notably in safety and care.”

Feltham A was now not safe enough. There was a significant increase in the number of children self-harming. “The care experienced by those in need was also reasonably good, although it would have been better if such children were not locked up, often alone, for extended periods.”

In the inspection survey, some 13% of children said they currently felt unsafe and levels of violence had increased significantly since 2018. In the six months to the 2019 inspection there were 230 incidents of violence, a return to the high levels reported in 2017. Initiatives to reduce violence existed, but needed to be applied with more rigour and coordination, Mr Clarke said. Inspectors noted that not enough had been done to identify the reasons behind the increase in violence.

“Similarly, a comprehensive behaviour management strategy had been formulated, but it was applied inconsistently.” Operational staff “were neither setting ambitious standards nor sufficiently challenging antisocial behaviour.”

The application of ‘keep-apart protocols’, designed to separate individuals or gangs who were perceived as a threat to one another, had become all-consuming, inspectors found. “We understood the over-riding need to keep children safe from one another, but such arrangements were having an impact on all aspects of the regime, limiting opportunities for children to make any progress. The prison needed to rethink this approach and develop new strategies for conflict resolution.”

Nearly two-thirds of children said they had been physically restrained and the use of force by staff had increased. Mr Clarke added: “Oversight and scrutiny were, however, lacking and we found evidence of poor practice, including the use of pain-inducing techniques, that had not been accounted for.”

Too few children felt respected by staff and many suggested they felt victimised. Inspectors saw patient and caring encounters, but found that many staff were too preoccupied with keeping children apart to be able to develop trusting relationships. Nearly half of children said they had no one to turn to for help. “The residential environment had deteriorated and we could best describe many cells as spartan,” Mr Clarke added. Inspectors found 26% of children locked in their cells during the working day, a situation that was worse than last year and overall very poor. Only around a third of children could shower every day.

However, there was evidence of real improvements to the education and training curriculum and to the management of teachers. Public protection arrangements were managed well, but offending behaviour interventions had been limited by staff shortages and by the imposition of the ‘keep-apart’ requirements.

Overall, Mr Clarke said: “Feltham is a high profile and challenging institution, and the decline in standards since the last inspection was disappointing. However, we were impressed by the new governor’s commitment to the institution and her grasp of the issues that need attention.”

The Chief Inspector added: “Because of our findings in the January 2019 inspection of Feltham A – and further concerns based on information from a number of sources – we have informed HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) that we will return to Feltham in the week commencing 8 July 2019 to carry out a survey, which will be followed by a full inspection starting on 15 July. This full, announced inspection will cover the whole establishment – both the Feltham A children’s unit and Feltham B, holding 18-21-year-olds. This is an unusual step, but I have come to the conclusion that in all the circumstances it is a necessary and appropriate course of action.”

Dr Jo Farrar, Chief Executive of HM Prison and Probation Service, said: “HMYOI Feltham A is a complex and challenging place, and we are pleased that inspectors have recognised the work of the new governor and her commitment to driving forward improvements at the prison. We are taking urgent action to address the concerns raised – this includes opening a specialist unit to provide interventions and support for the most challenging young people, and providing each offender with a dedicated officer to better help their rehabilitation. We have also recruited an extra 90 prison officers across Feltham since the last inspection and are training more than 50 Youth Justice Specialist Officers. We know that there is a lot more to do and that significant change is needed which is why the governor and her staff will continue to work hard ahead of the return of the inspectors in July.”

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