Behind the razor wire with Britain's lost generation

Suicide rates in youth jails are a national scandal. But one infamous institution is attempting to turn the tide
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The Independent Online

Ian's childhood milestones are ones no parent would wish to put in a photo album. Aged seven, he went on his first drinking binge. At 11 he tried drugs. His first court appearance was at 13.

The 18-year-old is considered a risk to himself and others. He has a conviction for attempted rape and a long history of self-harm - ugly scars run all the way up his arm.

Sitting in his T-shirt and sweat pants, he comes across as inadequate and acutely self-conscious. He is typical of the many deeply damaged boys sent to Feltham Young Offenders Institution (YOI), near Heathrow airport, one of the largest prisons of its kind. It has a reputation for turning around tearaways labelled "beyond reform".

Ian has made progress while at Feltham, which he has been encouraged to record in a daily diary. One extract provides a stark insight into how much help he needs: "I watched a documentary called 'Chatting to Death' about people who feel suicidal but don't speak about it so go into chatrooms ... [It] made me feel happy to have the support of the staff."

The majority of young offenders are extremely vulnerable, as the suicide last week of 14-year-old Adam Rickwood in the Hassockfield centre near Consett, Co Durham, demonstrated. It was thought to be the youngest ever suicide in custody. There have been around 25 self-inflicted deaths in young offender institutions since 1990.

Feltham has had its share of controversy. In March 2000, racist Robert Stewart, an inmate on the young offenders wing, beat to death his 19-year-old cell-mate, Zahid Mubarek, with a table leg. Next month a public inquiry will open into the killing. Stewart is now serving a life sentence.

In the past four years staff have tried hard to overturn the negative image. Currently Feltham has about 11 inmates at risk of self-harm. A poster reads: "Suicide is Everyone's Concern". The last here was three years ago. Those at risk are held in cells designed to be safe: bed and sink moulded to the walls, push-button taps, no sharp edges.

Everyone is treated equally regardless of their crime. What matters is how they reform while inside. The better their behaviour, the more privileges they earn. The majority of the 286 inmates aged 15 to 18 in "A" wing are sent here for drug offences and theft. Two are registered sex offenders and some have convictions for murder. Twenty-five per cent are foreigners.

Illiteracy is common. Crop-haired burglar Jack, 17, cannot write his name. "I never went to school in my life," he says. Staff have worked hard to challenge his aggression and racism. Six months on he is acclaimed as one of their success stories.

Many of the "lost boys" arrive unable to make a bed because they have spent years sleeping rough. Some have never visited a doctor or dentist and have poor personal hygiene. Dishes such as lasagne and shepherd's pie are a novelty for young men who have never eaten a home-cooked meal.

Carol Gaskin, in charge of juveniles at Feltham, says boys who have spent their lives in care often see crime as the only way to survive. One of them has already been in 42 institutions.

Punishment is not a word that is used at Feltham. Staff reward good behaviour with privileges such as watching TV and wearing one's own trainers. Bad behaviour includes swearing and fighting.

A mother of three grown-up children, Ms Gaskin says she tries to treat the boys as she would treat her own: "We set boundaries and encourage them to take responsibility."

The timetable is similar to that of a school, with three education sessions a day. Cooking, music and art are the most popular subjects.

Dayo Adeagbo, who works in the education block, is helping put together a mural painted by inmates. Surely instilling discipline in boys who have never spent more than a few weeks at school is impossible? He smiles: "You just channel their energy. I've never met a bad boy at Feltham. If you label them challenging, then challenging they will be."

IS THERE AN ALTERNATIVE TO LOCKING UP CHILDREN?

Stephen Pilkington, Acpo spokesman on youth justice issues and chief constable of Avon and Somerset

"We want to avoid having people in secure facilities, but it is an inevitable consequence when the protection of a community and the protection of the youngster is paramount."

Ann Widdecombe, Conservative MP and former Home Office minister

"We are dealing with an inherently unstable population and we are not giving them the necessary supervision. The current suicide rate is far too great. We need more secure training centres."

Marjorie Wallace, Chief executive of SANE

"The staff in many places are not trained to deal with psychologically damaged people. If they are mentally ill they shouldn't be in prison. For people who are already feeling lonely, it must be the worst experience."

Maurice Rumbold, Chief executive of children's charity NCH

"More use needs to be made of community sentences which are more effective than custody in preventing re-offending and ensuring that children take responsibility for their actions."

Mark Leech, Former young offender, editor of 'The Prisoners' Handbook'

"These youngsters are prolific re-offenders, who could be turned around with more education. Otherwise they are destined to be tomorrow's old lags, creating more victims of crime."

Norman Brennan, Director, Victims of Crime Trust

"Those that are in prison deserve to be there. It is tragic that youngsters commit suicide, but many of them would do it even if they weren't locked up."

Interviews by Steve Bloomfield