Extraordinary collapse in safety at Feltham Children's Unit, says Chief Inspector

By agency reporter
July 25, 2019

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons has called on the Secretary of State for Justice to intervene urgently in Feltham A Young Offender Institution (YOI) after an inspection last week disclosed an “extraordinary” decline in safety, care and activity for the children held there.

Inspectors found very high levels of violence, between boys and against staff, high use of staff force, poor care, long periods of lock-up in cells and escalating self-harm.

Peter Clarke invoked the rarely-used Urgent Notification (UN) process because of disturbing inspection findings at the unit holding boys aged under 18 in West London. The Secretary of State must respond within 28 days, in public, with action to improve conditions.

Feltham A had previously been subject to a full inspection in January 2019. The report on that inspection, published in early June 2019, warned of deterioration in safety and care after a period of drift. Mr Clarke also took the unusual step, based on intelligence from a number of sources about Feltham A, of announcing that the Inspectorate would return to the children’s unit in early July to inspect both Feltham A and Feltham B, the linked prison for 18–21-year-olds.

The Urgent Notification relates only to Feltham A which, Mr Clarke said, “has for many years been recognised as a challenging and complicated establishment.”

Mr Clarke added: “We found that in the six months since the last inspection there had been what can only be described as a collapse in performance and outcomes for the children being held in Feltham A… The speed of this decline has been extraordinary.”

In his UN letter to David Gauke, sent on 22 July, Mr Clarke set out his key findings:

  • 40 per cent of children said they had felt unsafe at some point during their stay at Feltham A
  • the number of violent incidents had risen by 45 per cent since January 2019, though the number of children held had fallen
  • the number of assaults against staff, some of which were very serious, had risen by around 150 per cent since January
  • levels of self-harm had tripled since the previous inspection and were 14 times higher than in January 2017
  • use of force by staff had risen to very high levels: 74 per cent of children reported they had been physically restrained at Feltham A and there had been over 700 incidents in the last six months
  • fewer than one in five children felt cared for by staff, less than half felt most staff treated them with respect, and only 45% reported there was a member of staff they could turn to for help
  • frontline staff were working in an extremely challenging environment and were frequently victims of antisocial behaviour and violence
  • a third of children said they were out of their cells for fewer than two hours during the week; at the weekend this figure rose to nearly three-quarters
  • resources were being wasted as health care staff, education facilities and resettlement intervention services stood idle waiting for children to arrive
  • many children were being released from Feltham A without stable accommodation, without education, training or employment being in place, and without support from family or friends.

Mr Clarke wrote to Mr Gauke: “I do not for one moment underestimate the challenges facing the leaders and staff at HMYOI Feltham A. During recent months they have often faced violence, some of it very serious. The atmosphere feels tense, and I could sense that many staff were anxious.

“Some were clearly frustrated about the situation in which they found themselves. They wanted to do their best for the children in their care.

“The overriding issue behind the extraordinary decline in performance over the past 18 months is the approach to dealing with violence and managing the behaviour of children. Of course, there is a need to keep children safe from each other, and for staff themselves to be safe in their workplace. However, the response at Feltham A, for many years, has been to focus too heavily on containing the problems rather than addressing them. As a result, ‘keep apart’ policies – developed so that children from rival gangs, or who for other reasons are likely to be violent to each other, are kept separate – have come to dominate.

“This has led to a collapse of any reasonable regime, has prevented many children from getting to education or training, delayed their access to health care, isolated them from meaningful human interaction and frustrated them to the point where violence and self-harm have become the means to express themselves or gain attention.

“There clearly needs to be a new approach which looks fundamentally to change behaviour and goes beyond merely trying to contain violence through ever more restrictive security and separation.”

* Read Mr Clarke’s Urgent Notification letter to Mr Gauke, and accompanying notes here

* HM Inspectorate of Prisons https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/

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