Privatisation threat to 'unsafe and dirty' young offenders jail

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Part of Britain's largest jail for young offenders should be privatised because it is unsafe and plagued by the "negative and malign" attitude of the prison officers' union, a report from the chief inspector of prisons will say today.

The treatment of inmates aged between 18 and 21 at a wing of Feltham young offenders' institution in west London remains "as bad as, if not worse than ... ever" despite a series of damning inspections, says Sir David Ramsbotham, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons.

The criticism has led to the forced transfer of Andrew Darkin, the chairman of the Prison Officers' Association (POA). It has also prompted a pledge by the Prison Service to put part of the jail out to private tender if conditions have not improved by April.

The threat of confrontation now looms large because the POA announced yesterday it was taking legal action against the Prison Service for the forced removal of its representative.

Mark Healy, national chairman of the POA, said: "We have a government dictating who an independent trade union will have as an elected official."

In his new inspection report, Sir David was particularly critical of Feltham's branch of the union, which he accused of being a "consistent obstacle" and a "malign influence" to reform and being more interested in protecting its own power than the conditions of inmates.

He said: "Members of the POA who are not prepared to change their ways should get out of the Prison Service now. I see no valid reason why they should remain on the public payroll"

Inspectors said that no improvements had been made to Feltham B, the side of the prison that houses young offenders aged from 18 to 21 and some of the juvenile inmates aged from 15 to 17. The accommodation was described as unsafe and dirty. Many of the inmates spent most of the day in their cells and the staff culture "remained predominately and profoundly negative".

Feltham, the largest youth jail in Europe, has been beset by problems including the racist murder of a teenage inmate last year and a mini-riot. A succession of governors has left, including one who resigned in protest at the "Dickensian" conditions after a teenage inmate hanged himself and nearly died.

A separate part of the institution, Feltham A, which deals with offenders aged 15 to 17, is praised in Sir David's report for its improved regime and refurbishment.