A very disturbing place

Richard Garside
Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick does not mince his words in his latest report on the children's part of Feltham young offenders' institution ('Feltham A').

'We had serious concerns about the safety of young people held at Feltham A', he writes in his introduction. 'Many told us they were frightened at the time of the inspection, and that they had little confidence in staff to keep them safe. Gang-related graffiti was endemic. There was an average of almost two fights or assaults every day. Some of these were very serious and involved groups of young people in very violent, pre-meditated attacks on a single individual with a risk of very serious injury resulting.'


His comments to The Independent in advance of the publication of his report were equally forthright:

'It was a very disturbing place. If you were a parent with a child in Feltham you would be right to be terrified. It would be very hard not to join a gang in Feltham.'

Concerns about inmate safety at Feltham are nothing new. The official inquiry into the awful murder of Zahid Mubarek in March 2000 by a fellow inmate found systematic failings in the management and running of the prison. The inquiry chair Mr Justice Keith pointed to a 'bewildering catalogue of shortcomings, both individual and systemic' in his statement at the launch of the inquiry report. Little, it appears, seems to have changed in the intervening years.

Some will see the problems of Feltham as being institution-specific: a question of better, more proactive management of the inmate population; of improved staff training and a more consistent approach. There is much truth in this.

Others will point to a wider cultural shift required across the prison service to embed an approach to prison management informed by a respect for human rights and the dignity of the individual. There is much truth in this too. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies is currently engaged in a pan-European project to investigate and compare prison conditions, share good practice and promote the adoption of the National Preventative Mechanism and respect for human rights in prisons management across the European Union.

Still others will shrug their shoulders. What do you expect if you stick a group of often violent young men together in one place, they might ask. This is a complacent response, but it points to an important truth.

The children in Feltham are there as a result of the British state's resort to imprisonment as a response to criminal convictions. The state owes a duty of care towards those it imprisons as much as it does to the rest of the population. The current problems of Feltham are little short of a dereliction of the state's duty of care towards some 200 or so vulnerable, often disturbed, children.

If the state is incapable of guaranteeing their welfare and safety it has no business locking them up in the first place.