Governor resigns over 'Dickensian conditions' at jail

High-flier quits after overcrowding of young offenders and complaints from staff about 'appalling' institution culminate in suicide bid
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The Independent Online

A prison governor has resigned from his £38,000-a-year job at Britain's biggest young offenders' institution in protest at what he describes as the jail's "Dickensian" regime and conditions.

A prison governor has resigned from his £38,000-a-year job at Britain's biggest young offenders' institution in protest at what he describes as the jail's "Dickensian" regime and conditions.

Ian Thomas, 29, took the extraordinary decision to give up his job at the Feltham Young Offenders' Institution in west London after a teenage inmate hanged himself and nearly died.

Mr Thomas, the deputy governor of the jail's Juvenile Centre, told The Independent that the attempted suicide was the final straw and followed repeated pleas and complaints by staff to the Prison Service headquarters not to send any more offenders to the overcrowded jail. He said that because of a shortage of beds, 105 offenders aged from 15 to 17 were being kept locked in graffiti-strewn cells for up to 22 hours a day in the wings where older offenders were supposed to be housed.

"The conditions they are being kept in are more suitable to a Dickens novel than the 21st century," he said.

The decision by one of the Prison Service's high-fliers to give up his post without another job is seen as a damning indictment of the state of the country's jails for juvenile criminals.

The resignation comes 18 months after conditions at Feltham were condemned by government inspectors as "appalling and unacceptable in a civilised society".

Sir David Ramsbotham, Chief Inspector of Prisons, said the report was "without doubt the most disturbing I have had to make during my three years". He found that young prisoners were left in "dilapidated, dirty and cold" cells with no blankets.

Mr Thomas joined the Prison Service in 1993 as a graduate under the fast-track promotion scheme and started at Risley jail in Cheshire, before moving to High Down, Surrey. He moved to Feltham in 1997 where he was quickly promoted.

He praised the staff and conditions at the newly refurbished Juvenile Centre, where there are places for 180 youths aged 15 to 17, but more than 100 other juveniles have to be kept in parts of the jail meant for offenders aged between 18 and 21.

"Think about warehousing vulnerable, damaged children in the most dire of accommodation, with no constructive regime and poor staffing levels," Mr Thomas said. "It doesn't take a genius to work out the possible tragic consequences of such an approach."

He said he snapped on Thursday last week when hewas told that one of the juveniles in a wing for older offenders had tried to hang himself and had been taken to hospital. "The picture of a 17-year-old on a life support machine made the point conclusively for me. This was the ultimate consequence of continuing to house children in accommodation not intended for juvenile use," he said.

"I made the almost spontaneous decision that I had to resign there and then."

He said that suicide attempts at the jail were "not unusual". He added: "The number of juvenile prisoners nationally appears to have caught all by surprise... The governor was saying a couple of weeks ago that we are not taking any more inmates but was ordered to take more by the Prison Service headquarters."

He said it was vital to keep youths aged between 15 and 17 busy with constructive activities. "I'm not advocating people in prison should have an easy time with palatial accommodation, but if we want them to treat society with respect they must be given some self-respect as well.

"I hope those in authority will listen. After all, who leaves a promising career and a well-paid job on a matter of principle? Someone who would rather maintain their self-belief, respect and principles than continue to work for an organisation, a public service, which continues to force decent people into managing the impossible."

Mr Thomas said his wife now intends to go back to teaching. "In the meantime I'll be a house-husband and look after my children," he said.

A Prison Service spokesman responded yesterday arguing that it was spending £5.5m on improvements at the jail. He added: "The higher than expected numbers [being sent to the prison by courts] and the need to move under-18s to the over-18s side of the prison while refurbishment takes place has created inevitable pressures on accommodation."