Even when Britain's youth prisons improve, they fail

·Political journalist

This is what improvement looks like in Britain’s crumbling young offenders’ estate: young boys not leaving their cells for 23 hours a day for fear of violence, widespread hunger and regular solitary confinement. Improvement is apparently a very low bar.

“Violence appears to be a fact of daily life in Feltham prison, and putting children into solitary confinement appears to be the management tool deployed in an attempt to contain it,” Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, says.

“We know about a 17-year-old who was segregated for eight days, being let out of his cell for only 30 minutes a day. He told our staff he didn’t know why he was being held in solitary and he was sinking into depression.

"We know about another 17-year-old locked in his cell with no contact with any other children, and with no idea of what he had to do to get back to a normal regime.

"Yet another 17-year-old [has been] locked in his cell for two weeks and only allowed out for 30 minutes a day to have a shower and make one phone call. He had no education and told our lawyers he was getting very depressed.

"The bottom line is that children are not safe in Feltham.”

And yet Feltham is an institution which is apparently improving. Today’s report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons found that new de-escalation restraint techniques were making progress, there were incentives for good behaviour, staff acted courageously to protect boys from assault, body-worn cameras were having a positive effect and relationships between staff and boys were the best they have been for many years.

That is genuine improvement, but it’s not reassuring. If this is what success looks like, then failure must be very grim indeed.

Thirty-seven per cent of the boys said they had been victimised. There were 209 violent incidents in the six months leading up to the inspection. One, captured on CCTV, saw a female officer being punched and kicked as she crouched over a boy who was being attacked. Between January and July, 49 officers had been injured and 40 assaults on staff had been referred to the police.

Segregation was still used regularly, with a “bleak and unsuitable” care and separation unit shared between children and young adults. On average, boys spent 19 hours a day locked up in their cell on weekdays and 20 hours on weekends. Some of the more frightened ones spent all the time they could in their cell. As the report noted, ominously, “boys complained that they were hungry”.

In the last 12 months alone, the Howard League advice line has received 117 separate enquiries into the prison. Many callers complained about the lack of safety and high risk of violence in the prison. The charity is urging the Hounslow Safeguarding Children Board to conduct an inquiry into the widespread use of solitary confinement.

Feltham gives you some impression of how hopelessly counter-productive Britain’s arrangements are for dealing with violent young men. No-one is having their issues dealt with while spending 20-hours a day in their cell. No-one can be put on the straight-and-narrow while escaping violence at 16. No violent offender can be helped while spending weeks on solitary confinement without knowing why or how to get out.

It is a hopeless way to treat young offenders, which does nothing but ensure they progress to become older offenders. Things are so bad, this despairing state of affairs actually constitutes genuine improvement.

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