'Appalling decline' at Feltham A Children's Unit

By agency reporter
October 31, 2019

An announced inspection of HMYOI Feltham, launched in response to disturbing intelligence about the establishment, found an “appalling” decline in standards in the Feltham A children’s unit, according to HM Chief Inspector of Prisons.

Publishing an inspection report, Peter Clarke said he hoped the Secretary of State for Justice would intervene to bring about lasting change at Feltham A, where life was dominated by a “negative cycle of containment and separation” of the children held.

Mr Clarke added that the performance of Feltham A, which holds children aged 15 to 18, either convicted or remanded, had fluctuated in recent years. But in July 2019 inspectors found “a dramatic decline across many aspects.”

“The decline was so acute and the outcomes so poor that for the first time in an establishment dedicated to the detention of children, I decided to use the Urgent Notification [UN] process (in July 2019).” This required the Secretary of State to respond publicly and within 28 days with proposals to improve the establishment.

The July 2019 inspection also covered Feltham B, which holds 18-21-year-olds who have been convicted. By contrast with the children’s unit, inspectors found a more encouraging picture in Feltham B.

Mr Clarke has published separate reports on the A and B units.

Feltham A
Violent incidents had risen by 45 per cent since the previous inspection only six months earlier. The number of assaults against staff, some of which were very serious, had risen by around 150 per cent since January 2019 and the levels of violence among children was higher than at similar establishments. Levels of self-harm had tripled since January 2019 and were now 14 times higher than they were in January 2017. Seventy-four per cent of children said they had been restrained, but governance of and accountability for the use of force by staff had all but collapsed.

Fewer than one in five children felt cared for by staff and a third of children said they were out of their cells for less than two hours a day during the week. At the weekend this figure rose to nearly three-quarters. Mr Clarke said: “The poor regime and delays in moving children had a highly disruptive influence on life at Feltham A. Resources were being wasted as health care staff, education facilities and resettlement intervention services stood idle waiting for children to arrive.”

The provision of education had fallen to a little over eight hours a week per child, and attendance rates stood at only 37 per cent. Disturbingly, there were no plans in place to improve this. Mr Clarke said: “Not only were children not getting to education, but neither was education getting to them. In the four weeks leading up to the inspection some 800 hours had been scheduled to be delivered on residential wings, but only around 250 hours had actually materialised.”

Many children were being released from Feltham A without stable accommodation, without education, training or employment in place and without support from family or friends.

Overall, Mr Clarke said: “Despite the challenges facing staff, there now needs to be a fundamental change in approach at Feltham. The practice of containing the behavioural problems of the boys rather than addressing them had failed to deliver a safe or rehabilitative environment. Neither boys nor staff were safe. The negative cycle of containment and separation that we have commented on in the past still dominated the day-to-day lives of those who lived and worked in the establishment.”

“The appalling situation we found cannot be allowed to continue, and I was told that action had already been taken to ensure that improvements would follow. I hope that at long last there will be a recognition that Feltham, if it is to remain as an institution holding children in custody, must change in a more radical way than at any time in its troubled history.”

“Short-term improvements followed by dramatic and dangerous declines should no longer be tolerated… Following the issue of the UN, the Youth Custody Service decided to ‘temporarily pause new placements of young people to Feltham A’. I have recently been informed that following a risk assessment “the operational decision has been made to restart new placements at the establishment’. I hope this decision proves to be well founded.”

Feltham B
The prison was last inspected in January and February 2017, when inspectors found that outcomes for prisoners in safety, purposeful activity and rehabilitation and release planning were not sufficiently good, though respect was reasonably good.

In July 2019 there had been improvements in safety and rehabilitation and release planning, which were now reasonably good, but a decline in purposeful activity, which was now poor. Despite this latter judgement, Mr Clarke said: “Overall the results of this inspection mark a significant achievement for an establishment that has faced similar pressures to many others that have not been able to maintain, let alone improve, their overall level of performance in recent times.”

Mr Clarke added: “Feltham B is a complex and challenging establishment… Clearly there was still much to do, but we were heartened by the positive attitude of many staff about what could be achieved, and by the sound relationships between many staff and prisoners that underpinned much of the progress that had already been made. We have seen in the past that progress at this complex establishment has proved to be fragile. I hope that on this occasion it will prove possible to build on what has been achieved and sustain it into the future.”

Helga Swidenbank, Executive Director for Youth Custody Service with HM Prison and Probation Service, said of Feltham A: “We made immediate changes at Feltham A following July’s inspection to strengthen staffing, tackle violence and temporarily stop new placements into the establishment. Young people at Feltham A can now access a full regime and there has been a sustained reduction in levels of self-harm, the use of force and the number of assaults on staff. Young offenders also have far better access to showers, more time out of their rooms and are more likely to attend their education classes. The full range of improvements will need time to take effect, but progress is being made – a credit to the Governor and her staff who care deeply about the safety of those in their custody.”

Of Feltham B, she said: “This is an encouraging report for Feltham B and I’m pleased that inspectors have noted the range of improvements that have been made since the last inspection in 2017. I’m confident that this progress will continue.”

Commenting on the reports, Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Only a few months ago, we said that Feltham A was an irredeemably flawed institution. Nothing has changed. It is not working, and it is not going to work.

“We should remember that this is an institution holding school-age children and that Feltham A has faced a litany of damning inspection reports. Any school with such an unmitigated record of failure would be closed on the spot, yet Feltham A is now reopening its gates to more children.

“This appalling situation cannot be allowed to continue. Holding children in such terrible conditions throws them into a torrent of chaos and violence and does nothing to steer them to safer shores. Feltham A fails these children, and society as a whole, and therefore should be closed.”

* Read the report on Feltham A Children's Unit here

* Read the report on Feltham B here

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

* Howard League for Penal Reform https://howardleague.org/


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