'Hardline policies creating Dickensian jail conditions'

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The Independent Online

The Government was accused yesterday of pandering to a "lynch-mob mentality" by sending more young people to jail and creating Dickensian conditions in Britain's biggest young offenders' institutions.

The Government was accused yesterday of pandering to a "lynch-mob mentality" by sending more young people to jail and creating Dickensian conditions in Britain's biggest young offenders' institutions.

Following the resignation of the deputy governor of Feltham Young Offenders' Institute, Ian Thomas, in protest at conditions, penal reformers said that the Government's hardline policies on juvenile crime were to blame.

Frances Crook, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the Government had given magistrates too much power to jail more children and claimed the numbers of teenagers going into prison had risen 10 per cent in the past three months.

She said: "You don't reduce the level of crime or reduce the number of victims this way but you can satisfy a lynch-mob mentality amongst a small percentage of the population who want to see more children punished." She added that 90 per cent of children sent to prison were reconvicted within four years.

The Independent revealed yesterday that Mr Thomas had resigned from his position at Feltham in protest over the "Dickensian" conditions faced by more than 100 inmates aged 15 to 17, who were being forced to stay in wings for older offenders because of overcrowding. He said he could no longer stand working at the west London institute after watching children being "warehoused". "The conditions they are being kept in are more suitable to a Dickens novel than the 21st century," he said.

The 29-year-old governor said he was quitting his job and planned to become a secondary school teacher.

Sir David Ramsbotham, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, repeated his call yesterday for a second young offenders' institution to be built in London and said he was saddened but not surprised at Mr Thomas's resignation and complaints about over-crowding.

Sir David said he had been urging the government to build a new jail for young criminals in the capital since 1996. He added: "One is always hearing about problems at Feltham."

The chief inspector has a visit to Feltham already arranged in a fortnight and said he hoped to carry out a follow up inspection by the end of the year.

Jan Dalrymple, managing director of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, blamed a shortage of around 500 places for juvenile boys in London for the overcrowding.

The Prison Service, however, said it was "surprised" by Mr Thomas' decision to quit in the light of recent attempts to improve conditions. They said it was hoped that a new £6m unit at Feltham, opening on Monday, and sending offenders to Hollesley Bay Colony in Woodbridge, Suffolk, would ease the pressure on the west London institute.