`It's going to be a long, hot summer'

Feltham has a new governor and an improved reputation, but the old fears are resurfacing. By Jojo Moyes
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The Independent Culture
By early 1992, with four inmates having committed suicide in the space of seven months, Feltham Young Offenders' Institute and Remand Centre had become a byword for squalor and brutality.

It was condemned by Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, whose report shortly afterwards painted a picture of an understaffed jail where violence and blackmail were common and the incidence of self-mutilation was alarming. The lifestyle of 500 remand and 242 sentenced prisoners was said to be "unsatisfactory", and levels of threatening behaviour were high.

Judge Tumim described the future of the low-level, red-brick institution as "bleak", and for a while its closure looked likely. But, in the four years since his report, Feltham is acknowledged to have made significant progress. It has installed closed-circuit TV and monitors and set up a special unit to deal with bullying - one of the main reasons, together with boredom, given for the high level of suicides among its 15-to-21-year-old inmates.

A wide variety of help organisations has now moved in. The Society of Voluntary Associates (SOVA) runs reading and writing courses; the Prisoners' Resources Service provides drug and alcohol groups; the New Assembly of Churches runs a two-week course helping inmates to adapt to the outside world of benefit offices and health centres; while the Howard League for Penal reform runs a "troubleshooting" project for 15-year-olds.

Feltham also now houses an "advice and resettlement project", the first scheme to be managed independently inside a prison by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO). This offers information on employment and rehabilitation, and helps new inmates.

The numbers now referred on to the scheme, say NACRO, testify to its success. In the two years since it was set up, 1,436 inmates have taken rehabilitation advice, with 5,500 accepting "admission" care. A NACRO report published earlier this month was positive about its achievements.

A new prison governor, Ivor Ward, "has completely changed the place around", says a spokeswoman. She is keen to stress the role played by staff in keeping down the suicide rate: "People don't realise - it's a really tough job that they do. It's a real credit to them that there isn't more trouble."

Feltham is not quite the success story it seems, however. For a start, the turnover of 38,000 a year is increasing without the resources to cope. "A lot of the good work that has gone on in the past few years is being put in jeopardy," says Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform. "Feltham is now absolutely full up, with 130 more kids than there were a year ago, and it's going to get fuller."

Thanks to the budget cuts proposed by the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, she thinks that much of the work which relies on a high staff-to-inmate ratio, such as that to stem bullying, will disappear. "You need to know one youngster from another, know who's being bullied, know who's vulnerable. You can't do that with fewer staff."

A good proportion of the projects that have been implemented over the past three years have come from charitable institutions. The Howard League's scheme, which has cost pounds 300,000 during its three-year term, will end in September due to a lack of resources. She believes that other schemes will face the same problems. "The prison is relying on charities, but they should be providing added extras, not core functions. That's not management's fault, or staff. That's the lack of funding.

"I'm not hopeful for Feltham," Ms Crook adds. "There are going to be terrible problems, especially with those sorts of numbers coming in, and there's nothing you can do without funds. Ivor Ward is facing insuperable odds."

Meanwhile, as the Howard League prepares to pull out, another inmate has committed suicide. Levels of self-mutilation are said to be as high as ever. And, even as Ms Crook spoke, a 16-year- old boy had just been admitted to hospital after trying to kill himself. Although he was known to be vulnerable, a severe shortage of rooms meant that he was placed in the adult wing, where he was bullied until he attempted to take his own life. "It's going to be a long, hot summer," Ms Crook says.