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Howard League blog · 30 Jul 2018

Reinventing different ways of locking up children – a cautionary tale

Feltham prison holds boys and young adults. It has a terrible history, and because it is on the outskirts of London and is one of the biggest child jails it has drawn more public attention than other prisons holding children, but its story is similar to many other institutions that hold children in trouble.

It has never been a well functioning establishment and over the years tens of thousands of children and young people have experienced an impoverished and sometimes abusive regime. Goodness only knows what damage has been done in the name of the state – damage to the young people and their families and damage to victims. It is worth looking back at its history so it is not repeated – a real threat with the call to build yet another iteration of child jails.

I want this blog to be a reality check to the government as it plans to reinvent yet another type of prison for children in the form of ‘secure schools’. If we do not learn from decades of failure, we risk just repeating it at a terrible cost.

The history of Feltham is instructive. It was the second Borstal in the country, opening in 1910. Remember borstals were intended to be educational rather than punitive and to hold boys separately from adults. It operated for decades then became a remand centre, a youth custody centre and was rebuilt as a young offender institution (YOI) in the 1980s. After years of acrimonious industrial relations, the expensively rebuilt Feltham YOI was opened in 1988 for remands and sentenced young people.

YOIs again were intended to be places of education and the rules provided for 15 hours of education a week – rarely, if ever, achieved.

The first inspection report published in 1989 describes a litany of problems, including lack of staff and a recalcitrant attitude of the trades union which seemed to be running the prison. The boys were locked in their cells for most of the day, eating in cells, there was a lack of education and exercise and they were not allowed to go to the library. The boys were given one pair of pants and outer clothing each week. Family visits lasted 20 minutes.

Things never really improved and the reports, year after year, reiterate the same concerns. Things deteriorated so badly that five teenagers took their own lives within a couple of years. One lad hanged himself after he was gang raped by other boys using a snooker cue. A 15-year-old, sentenced by magistrates to 188 days, strangled himself from the bars of his cell. The Howard League commissioned Anthony Scrivener QC to look into the prison and the deaths. As a result a working party was set up by the prison service to look into change.

In 1991 inspectors found that despite the deaths, the regime had not developed and staff relied on the use of control and restraint.

YOIs again were intended to be places of education and the rules provided for 15 hours of education a week – rarely, if ever, achieved

In 1996 inspectors said the prison was bursting at the seams and unable to tackle reoffending. The jail held 382 boys aged 15 or 16 as well as older teenagers. The youngsters were locked up almost all day, lying idle.

In 1998 the Chief Inspector said his inspection of Feltham was the most disturbing he had done in his three years as HM Chief Inspector. He said treatment and conditions were totally unacceptable, even worse than two years previously with a marked deterioration in the treatment of boys.

A task force was put into the prison and an action plan alongside an additional £11.7 million promised. The prison was divided into two and the inspector said in 1999 that progress was promised.

A year later, in 2000, he reported that little or nothing had been done to resolve the very serious failings in the treatment of and conditions for young adults, and much still remained to be done to provide a proper environment for the children. The inspector said that there was a powerful staff culture that opposed any structured attempt to deliver a decent regime.

By 2002 the inspectors said the children’s wings were off the critical list with more time out of cell, though not as much as the monitoring figures claimed. The report included 216 recommendations for improvement.

In 2005 inspectors said the improvements had been maintained in the treatment and regime for boys, but they were still not able to exercise in the fresh air and the use of force and assaults were high.

In 2010 Feltham remained a volatile establishment where staff placed heavy reliance on the use of force, segregation and ‘special accommodation’. The report included 202 recommendations for change.

In almost every report inspectors said that managers and staff were responding to the challenges – so it is exasperating that every report indicates that the problems were endemic and repeated

A year later inspectors found some useful and effective work but some deterioration in provision. While the prison was fundamentally safe, levels of violence remained a concern. Attendance at education was poor and a fifth of the children were locked in their cells most of the day.

In 2012, a project using a wing in the prison, aimed at drastically cutting reoffending rates and funded by the Mayor of London and the European Social Fund, closed without achieving its objectives.

By 2013 it had deteriorated again and inspectors said they had serious concerns about the safety of children. The institution was warned that the use of disciplinary measures and sanctions was the least effective response, including holding children in the segregation unit for up to 10 days and then confining them to their cells for 22 hours a day for long periods.

By 2015 the number of boys had been reduced by around 15 per cent to 161 although it had capacity for up to 240. This breathing space had resulted in improved safety but still the inspectors noted a failure to provide purposeful activity. A quarter of the boys were locked up all day and most of the boys had only limited time out of cell, with some having as little as one hour a day.

A second report published in the same year noted that the number of violent incidents remained very high and a third of the boys said they had felt unsafe. Some boys were too frightened to leave their cells and spent their days hiding behind their doors. Staff used force to try to exert control.

In almost every report inspectors said that managers and staff were responding to the challenges – so it is exasperating that every report indicates that the problems were endemic and repeated.

We come to 2017, when the number of boys had gone down to 126. The inspection can only be described as disappointing and the decline was said to be of great concern. The judgement on safety and purposeful activity had sunk to the lowest level. The use of force by staff had increased and was ineffective and few of the inspection recommendations had been implemented. The restricted regime did little to contribute to their education, socialisation or safety. Almost half of the boys were locked in their cells all day and a third only got out for two hours a day. Nineteen thousand hours of education had been lost as boys were not escorted to classes or classes were cancelled.

Finally, the 2018 report, published in May, indicated improvements in safety to be ‘reasonably good’. After years of repeated calls to change, the behaviour management system was based on incentives, which is seen as a major innovation. Yet, there are still serious problems with violence and some staff were distant and dismissive of the boys. Exercise is restricted to 30 minutes a day – and remember these are young teenagers who are full of physical energy and hormones.

I bet none of the staff, inspectors, governors or minister would tolerate one of their own children being held there

It is an indication of the low expectations of a prison like Feltham when the inspector praises the prison for only locking the boys up for 17 hours a day. Inspectors lauded the fact that some of the boys were permitted to eat together although most still ate in their cells alone.

Over the years inspection reports appear to be so relieved that the prison is not utterly dreadful that every small improvement is praised. Nevertheless, at no time in its history could Feltham, or indeed any other prison holding children, be said to be safe and loving and constructive place for children. I bet none of the staff, inspectors, governors or minister would tolerate one of their own children being held there.

The Howard League advice line has received enquiries in respect of 30 boys in Feltham in the last year – three quarters of whom were black or minority ethnic.

A father called about his 16-year-old son, who was locked up for 23 hours a day. Although his son had been very sporty, he was not getting any physical exercise at all, effectively caged in his cell. He was not getting enough food and was looking gaunt.

The parent of a 17-year-old called to say the same thing about his son.

A 17-year-old looked-after boy called to say he is locked in his cell for 23 hours a day and that he had not had a shower for four days. He was given one hour of ‘education’ but had been told that he would get no more.

The Howard League is representing a child who was held in effective solitary confinement in Feltham for weeks on end. The case is going to be considered by the Court of Appeal in November.

The point of relating all of this is to show that, even with the best of intentions, various iterations of prisons for children as places of education and rehabilitation, have simply never worked.

Meanwhile, as inspectors have reported for years, time after time, prisons are not safe for children and even at their best are only seen to be improving a bit.

Feltham has reinvented itself time and again but that has not prevented damage to the thousands of children who had come through its walls as children in need, with challenging behaviour and mental health needs and/or learning difficulties.

They deserve a better chance and a better future, as do their victims.


  • Marcus says:

    Keep the good work up Howard League The while system is a mess
    Usual call for longer sentences by police and certain media
    No realisation of how gang culture manifests and develops from prison
    No rehabilitation
    Gove although I’m not a fan was the first to mute sweeping reforms and got sacked
    Sad times

  • Having been resident, a few times, in the former, Ashford Remand Centre and served a ‘6 to 2’ in the former Feltham Borstal, progressing to the ‘Finimore Wood Camp’ to finish off my sentence: it definitely seems that VERY little progress in the then abominable treatment of the younger generations. Only now, with MUCH privatisation of the, ‘so-called’, Prison SERVICE: inmates ARE being treated even less than Individual HUMAN Beings, (Many with Emotional or Psychological Problems), than before. The WHOLE system is rampantly corrupt, especially when financial ‘profiteering’ is involved, to the ABSOLUTE neglect of HUMANE Social Concern.

  • John Baker says:

    I remember kids a bit younger than me referring to Feltham in the early 1970s as a place to avoid if at all possible; they never explained (or maybe I just didn’t ask) but the negative role played by ‘the Trades Union that seems to run Feltham’ is a scandal that needs greater exposure in the press.

  • Charlotte Bailey says:

    My heart breaks for these young people but i am also so angry at the callous treatment they are receiving. This sort of regime means that when they leave they will be damaged beyond recognition and be in and out of prison in adulthood.
    Small improvements to the regime are not enough and inspectors and politicians who allow this should be held accountable.

  • Bridget says:

    I had the misfortune of having to visit this place, it was awful and depressing , the boy I went to see was scared of everyone and everything. We should not be letting younge people live like this while they are in the care of the state

  • Basia Korzeniowska says:

    This is so sad. Obviously that is not the right word. Outrageous times ten thousand. But I have been working in a school for excluded children, many with mental health difficulties. In theory they were being educated. But not socialised. Very little work was done to raise their self Esteem and sense of self worth. They were threatened with Feltham at times . Appalling

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