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Inside Feltham: Why London's Young Offender Institution is one of the scariest prisons in Britain

A recent report painted a shocking picture of abuse and violence at the prison. Archie Bland meets ex-inmates, and people who have lost relatives there

Archie Bland
Wednesday 04 September 2013 11:16 BST

In 1991, a 15-year-old boy from Great Yarmouth was sent to Feltham Prison in West London, about 200 miles from his home, for 188 days. His name was Jeffrey Horler. Jeffrey’s mother could not afford the trip to visit him, and while he was there, alone, he was told that his grandmother had died. A prison officer found him sobbing in his cell, where he was confined for as much as 21 hours a day. Social services denied him permission to go to the funeral. Shortly afterwards, he was found dead, hanged from his barred window. He had been sent to Feltham for setting fire to a shed.

In a House of Lords debate the following year, Jeffrey Horler’s suicide was raised. “That was the way we treated a child of 15 in Britain in 1991,” said Lord Harris of Greenwich. “We are in the position of discussing the third critical report on Feltham published within a period of three and a half years. I hope we shall not have to wait for a fourth report before these criticisms are addressed.”

About a month ago, nearly 22 years after Jeffrey Horler’s death, Jake Davis sat in a café in Islington, remembering his own experience of Feltham. Davis, who is 20 years old, achieved a certain notoriety when he was sentenced for hacking as part of the Lulzsec group in May. He had been in Feltham – which is split into units A and B, for children and young adults respectively – for only 38 days, but the experience had had a profound impact on him. He remembered one teenager who hadn’t been given a job, and wasn’t in education, and was consequently sometimes out of his cell for an hour or even less each day.

The young man, who had cuts all the way up his arms, approached the prison officers in the exercise yard. I’m sick of my cell, he said. I need to get out. I need a cleaning job. “They said, you can’t have a cleaning job,” said Davis, who had been told that he had committed a ‘gangster’ crime and given one of the coveted jobs himself within a few days of his arrival. “They said, this guy can murder people, that guy can hack computers. What do you do? You rob old ladies. You can’t have a job.”

Davis says he told the guards that it would, indeed, be useful to have an additional cleaner, but it made no difference. That night, after lock-up, as most of the other inmates sat watching Big Brother, he heard six or seven guards rushing into a cell. Prisoners – some laughing, some banging on their doors – started shouting out a roll call, and one by one, they responded to their names. But one prisoner didn’t respond, the one with the cuts up his arms, the one who didn’t get the job. He had tried to hang himself.

Suicides in custody are rare at Feltham. Still, it is a measure of the prison’s limited improvement that this is the marker of change: at least, this time, the boy survived. Lord Harris’ hope for a rapid transformation has not been realised. Some 13 reports have been published since Jeffrey Horler’s death, and to read them is to immerse yourself in a record of despair. “This report… is, without doubt, the most disturbing I have had to make during my three years as Chief Inspector of Prisons,” wrote Sir David Ramsbotham in 1998. “I ask the staff… implicated by these remarks whether they would be happy for their sons, or the sons of any of their friends, to be on the receiving end of the treatment and conditions described in the report which are unacceptable in a civilized country.”

Three years later, in his last report before he retired, Ramsbotham found that not much had changed. “I find it distressing,” he wrote, “that all I can do is, yet again, report that the problems which I have so often and so consistently drawn attention to over the past five years remain as bad as, if not worse than, they ever did… For how much longer can ministers allow Feltham B to remain a consistently failing establishment and when is something going to be done about it?”

When the buildings that would become Feltham opened in the 1980s they were based on the 'New Generation' of prison design, originated in California (Rex Features)

Since then, the reports have improved a little – even if each seems to look forward to the crystallisation of the institution's promise of functionality by the time of the next visit. Last month, though, the present chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, wrote what the Howard League for Penal Reform called the worst dispatch from any such institution in more than a decade. “There is no concealing the fact that this report is one of the most concerning we have published recently,” Hardwick wrote. He painted a picture of aimlessness, and hopelessness, and endemic gang violence. If you were a parent with a child locked up there, he told this newspaper, “you would be right to be terrified”.

So what is it about Feltham? And do the past and present of this one troubled institution have anything to tell us about the way we handle young offenders across the board? A couple of weeks after the report was published, Nick Hardwick, a man with the rumpled appearance of the persistently idealistic public servant, pondered these questions in his similarly dishevelled office. “I don’t think this is just a Feltham problem,” he said. “It’s a wider problem. We need to get our heads around what we are going to do with these very damaged boys, because simply punishing them, well, it doesn’t work. It absolutely doesn’t work.”

As a visitor, according to Hardwick, the strangest moment at Feltham is when you walk into the under 18’s section for the first time. “When you see them all together, the striking thing is how young they look,” he said. “And I think it’s important that you never forget it. They are children.”

When the buildings that would become the present-day Feltham first opened in the 1980s, the hopes for their effects were rather brighter. There had been a Borstal on the site since 1910, but the modern incarnation was intended as part of a bright new era in prison design, based on a model plucked from California that was supposed to keep inmates under control in a more humane way. The idea – the ‘New Generation’ of prison design, as it was known – was to keep inmates in relatively small groups so that they might be more naturally and continuously supervised without the need for the alienating patrols common to more traditional blocks. At Feltham, this was realized in two groups of nine housing units, each triangular, with cells along two sides and large windows on the third, overlooking the communal space. These units were linked by a central ‘street’ running through trees and lawns.

“It was the first to adopt this American model,” says Allan Brodie, senior investigator at English Heritage and author of ‘English Prisons: an Architectural History’. “It’s an attempt to give it a university campus feel. The units aren’t homely, but they do feel reasonably small-scale. They feel closer to the domestic. The actual interior spaces are quite nice and light, intimate and small-scale.” Another model, Brodie writes in his book, is a layout and atmosphere ‘reminiscent of the village’. That physical impression chimes with Jake Davis’ sense of the place. “The views are amazing,” he says. “I expected a concrete yard, but there are trees everywhere.”

Zahid Mubarek was murdered at Feltham in 2000 by his cellmate Robert Stewart, a racist psychopath (Rex Features)

In general, though, the leafiness gets lost in Feltham’s reputation, which is not that of a village, or a campus, or a home. Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for penal reform, is withering about the concept. “Letting in the sunshine and air? It’s great in California, not so good in Hounslow,” she scoffs. “They had to cover the sides of the walkways, so it’s much more claustrophobic. And it’s like a tower block, in the way that tower blocks get shabby very quickly.”

I wandered around outside recently with the local Labour MP, Seema Malhotra, who has visited before as part of the Justice Select Committee. (My own repeated requests for a tour were turned down flat.) In an unpleasant irony that must play on the minds of some inmates, the prison is right next to Heathrow airport, that symbol of escape and freedom; as we peered at the nests of barbed wire that fence the perimeter, jumbo jets roared above us, shrinking to dots in a perfect summer sky. “Some of the living areas had a bit of a sense of community,” Malhotra says. “But as you go through the corridors, it’s dark and cramped and very bleak.”

Daniel, another recent inmate who had served in other prisons, hated the small units that are supposed to make it more manageable. (His name has been changed.) “Another establishment I was in,” he remembers, “you’d be flowing freely with other prisoners going from place to place, from your unit to education to the gym. Feltham, you’re always indoors. Even the walkways have roofs and bars. You feel claustrophobic, constricted. It has to have an effect on your psyche. It has to make you act up.”

If the soothing effects of the trees – and the peacocks that once, surreally, stalked the grounds; the units are all named for birds – ever did have an effect, it quickly dissipated. Between the opening of the prison in its current form and the turn of the millennium, the diagnosis of life at Feltham was nearly always gloomy. And then, in 2000, the tragedy struck that seemed to many to be the most shameful and unanswerable critique of our treatment of young offenders, the one that should have changed the prison – and the system – for good.

On March 21 that year, Martin Narey, who was then Director General of the prison service, got to his desk just before 7am. The phone was ringing when he got there. The call was from Feltham. Zahid Mubarek, who was 19, was serving a three month sentence for stealing razor blades and ‘interfering’ with a car. He had gone to bed the night before expecting to be released when he got up. Instead, at 3.35am, an alarm sounded in the guards’ office. It had been sounded by Zahid’s cellmate, Robert Stewart, who had just bludgeoned him unconscious with a table-leg.

Stewart, a racist psychopath who was awaiting trial for harassment, was fast asleep within half an hour. Zahid was on his way to Charing Cross Hospital, where he died a little later. Before he passed away, Narey sat with his parents at his bedside. A few days later, Narey sat with the prison’s governor, Niall Clifford, as he wept at his desk, and soon after relieved him of his duties. Extraordinarily, in that year alone, Feltham would have five governors.

Later, after an exhaustive inquiry, evidence would emerge that showed that prison officers could have known that Stewart was a dangerous racist, and that the two men had been put in the same cell because of severe overcrowding. There were even claims – fiercely denied – that the two had been put together deliberately, as part of ‘gladiator games’ for the amusement of officers. In total, 189 failings that led to Zahid’s murder would be identified. And 88 recommendations would be made for avoiding such a horror in the future.

“It was a catastrophe,” says Narey, who offered his resignation over the killing. “It captured a little bit of what sort of a place Feltham was.” Narey, now Sir Martin, who went on to run Barnardo’s and was widely respected for his work in prisons, pauses. “Seven years. Do you know, 594 people killed themselves on my watch. 19 of them were children. And nobody gave a toss.”

Jake Davis was sent to Feltham after breaking the terms of his parole: 'I'd heard about big, tough guys literally jumping out of the dock because they didn't want to go' (Rex Features)

Some thirteen years later, Mubarek Amin, Zahid’s father, still finds his son’s death difficult to talk about, but he is angry enough to try. I meet him and Zahid’s uncle Imtiaz in a café in Walthamstow, Zahid’s neighbourhood, where the family still live. “The thoughts are still there,” Mubarek says, staring at his knees. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Zahid. What he went through. Why he was put away.”

It is, perhaps, particularly difficult to find peace because, in the family’s view, the lessons of Zahid’s death have not been learned. “There are still a lot of answers that we need,” Mubarek says. “And then you see this report. I just don’t think anyone in there is taking their job seriously. I don’t think it’s improving.”

Imtiaz runs the Zahid Mubarek Trust, a charity that devotes itself to making such tragedies less likely in future. As a result, he says, he “virtually lives at Feltham now”. Of the 88 recommendations made by the inquiry into Zahid’s death, 77 are said to have been met. And the public attention that Zahid Mubarek’s death brought did improve things at Feltham, if the reports are correct. But Imtiaz is deeply sceptical about that figure. “Put it this way,” Imtiaz says, “if the authorities successfully implemented 77 of the recommendations they would deserve an award. Because it would be the first time it had been done. If they had successfully implemented 77 the prison would be having no problems at all.”

Zahid Mubarek’s death is just one of the reasons that Feltham retains a reputation as the most fearsome institution for young people in the prisons estate. Jake Davis, when he was sent there, was filled with a sense of foreboding. ‘I’d heard about big, tough guys literally jumping out of the dock because they didn’t want to go,” he remembers. Davis, a slight computer hacker from the Shetland Islands, is not a big, tough guy. “So I was quite scared.”

Daniel was sent to Feltham after breaking the terms of his parole. He was there for seven months. He won’t reveal the crime for which he was originally sentenced, but he says that he had ‘anger issues’. All the same, he was also nervous upon arrival. “You hear a lot of things about Feltham in other prisons,” he says. “From the first day I was on my guard.”

In practice, though, maybe the most oppressive things about Feltham are the same things that are oppressive about any sort of captivity: the boredom, and isolation, and pettiness. The undisputed best way to get through a sentence is to stay occupied – to get a coveted job on the wing, no matter how boring, or to get into education, and to make the days vanish with business. But without a job, the inactivity can be unbearable. According to the recent report, some 43 per cent of adult inmates are unemployed. And that means more time in the cell.

It’s hard to be precise about this. Although inspections are unannounced, the prison does get half an hour’s notice of the visitors’ arrival; once they are there, it may not be running exactly as it does in normal circumstances. “Even when a governor comes on the unit it all changes,” says Daniel. “When the inspectors were coming you’d suddenly be told to get up and clean the servery until it’s spotless by someone who never cared the rest of the time. And the staff are hilariously well-behaved.”

But even the inspection report noted serious problems. While inmates in the children’s section get an average of six hours out of cell a day, on the adult side the restrictions are far worse. Unemployed prisoners are locked up for more than 22 hours a day. And the supposed minimum of an hour a day ‘association’ (plus half an hour’s exercise) is often unduly optimistic: these periods of relief are routinely curtailed or cancelled. Prisoners on the ‘basic’ regime, who have lost the privileges associated with good behaviour, can be locked in one small room for 23 hours and 40 minutes every day. On Jake’s wing of 48 young men about 10 were on ‘basic’.

The worst aspect of this, says Daniel, is the arbitrary nature of the shifts in the routine. Day by day, officers can change the rules without oversight from governors, and often do so for reasons that will understandably seem inadequate to inmates – or for no reason at all. For instance, high rates of absence among the staff mean that sometimes there are too few officers to oversee the release of every prisoner, meaning some are kept in their cells without cause. Or an expected half hour of exercise outdoors will be cut short because officers don’t want to be out in the rain.

“When you take away someone’s liberty and you force them to live the way that you’re saying, you have to keep up that structure,” Daniel says. “If you tell someone ‘you’re not getting out of your cell for the next four days’ they’ll be pissed off but they’ll deal with it. But what happens is you tell a kid there’s going to be association, and of course there are enough staff, and then half an hour later two people haven’t turned up – so it’s no association today. If you do that four times in a row, there’s going to be trouble.”

The effects of this regime can be peculiar. Davis lost his cleaning job at one point for mopping perilously close to a computer, which he was barred from accessing as part of his sentence, and hence found himself on a more restrictive schedule. “If you have a couple of 23 and a half hour days in a row,” he says, “I found that you actually don’t want to go out of your cell. You just want to shut the curtain and pretend. To find some way of imagining you’re not there. It doesn’t work. And if you don’t have a cellmate, it’s just mind-numbing.” He found that his hearing became much more acute than normal. “You hear every time the keys are jingling. You start being able to tell what’s going on just by the noises outside.”

In the circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that aspects of the routine that might seem utterly inconsequential can take on outsize consequences. Just about everyone I spoke to agreed on the outsized impact of one narrow point: mealtimes. “The food, man!” said Daniel, rolling his eyes extravagantly. He described the same pattern as the official report, whereby prisoners get their lunch at 11, their dinner at 4, and a breakfast pack for the next morning at the same time, which is invariably eaten right away, leaving an 18 hour pause without food. Teenage boys, as Nick Hardwick points out, are always hungry. “They clear the fridge, don’t they?” he asks. “You’re growing, and you’re active, you want to eat. It’s ridiculous. It’s a long time for a lad that age to go without. And so they get cross.”

Recent inmate Daniel hated the small units that are supposed to make it more manageable: 'You're always indoors. Even the walkways have roofs and bars. You feel claustrophobic, constricted. It has to have an effect on your psyche. It has to make you act up.' (Justin Sutcliffe)

It has been suggested by some guards, and by the inspection report, that violence is sometimes pre-arranged. Hardwick cites a disturbing example of an incident caught on CCTV in which two boys started a diversionary fight so that a mob could attack someone else without interruption. Andy Darken, who spent 13 years as a prison officer at Feltham until 2001 and who recently finished a second, year-long stint, says that London’s so-called ‘post code’ gang culture was largely responsible. “I came back to a place that looked the same but was totally different,” he said. “The gang thing was quite a shock. I would be able to tell a situation was brewing, but I would tell what gang the different prisoners would belong to.” Once, Darken says, he was talking peacefully with a prisoner when another walked behind him, and the two suddenly launched at each other. “How do you know they’re in the wrong gangs?” he says helplessly. “How do you deal with that?”

But there is a persuasive case that the more routine problems are borne of the unreleased energy of teenagers who have a problem with discipline. “Maybe one or two times while I was in there you could tell something might kick off,” says Daniel. “But it’s flare-ups, always flare-ups. People get out of their cells and they’re angry.” According to the Howard League’s Frances Crook: “They’re cooped up all day with nothing to do, and that’s why there’s this feeling of danger. They have all this pent up testosterone and energy and they take it out on each other.”

Darken says that moves towards a less draconian regime than once ruled Feltham has brought with it problems with discipline. Nick Hardwick’s report criticized a use of batons that was significantly more commonplace than in other prisons; but, according to Darken, there is no other option today. “You expect prisoners to be impulsive, but back then you’d get involved and they’d say ‘all right, gov’, and calm down. And now they don’t. They don’t hold back, they keep going until they’re really forced to stop. You used to have an acceptance of authority, and you don’t any more. You feel outnumbered every day. That’s why it’s tough, that’s why there's high levels of sickness.”

Has Darken ever lost control? He remembers one incident in particular, when a prisoner in a classroom started a fight. “I got dragged all over the room,” he says. I was being draped over desk and chairs, there were papers everywhere. I can’t remember that ever happening before. It’s a tinderbox.” There are now an average of seven assaults on staff a month. In the past, Darken says, attacks on female officers would be taboo. Now the gender of the member of staff makes no difference. One female officer was recently punched and had her nose broken; as she lay on the floor her assailant started to kick her in the head. With no other guards in range, if another prisoner hadn’t intervened to stop the attack, says Darken, she could have been killed.

Daniel and Jake, perhaps unsurprisingly, sees things differently. They paint a picture of an institution in which the deliberately provocative behaviour of the officers towards those they have taken against has extreme consequences. Daniel remembers one incident in particular with an officer who was a former military man. “He just didn’t like this kid,” he says. “He wanted to leave his cell to empty his bin, but the officer said he couldn’t... The boy was like: I’m right by the bin. This is pathetic. So he emptied it. The staff member grabbed his arm, and the kid was like, don’t grab my arm, so he ripped it away.” In the ensuing scuffle, the inmate sustained a broken hand. According to Daniel, the other staff members present all reported that the inmate had lunged at the officer.

To many outside judges, the attitude and training of prison officers has been a historic problem – across the prison estate, but particularly at Feltham. Time and again inspection reports drew the same conclusion; the Prison Officers Association has often been characterized as deeply obstructive to good practice and resentful of any attempts to dilute its authority, a process that has taken many years. “The POA were just militant,” Lord Ramsbotham, who wrote those damning reports when Feltham was at its nadir, told me. “The chairman at the time boasted about destroying governors, and it had to stop.”

The chairman in question was, in fact, Andy Darken, and shortly after Zahid Mubarek’s death, he was moved out of the prison against his will by Martin Narey as “a barrier to progress”. Even 13 years on, there is anger in Narey’s voice as he talks about him. “Unions are entitled to protect their members, that’s their purpose,” he says. “But the POA resisted any balance in terms of making things better for the young people there.”

There’s no love lost on the other side, either. Darken says that Narey’s decision – later challenged in court - was “entirely wrong”, a reaction to his complaints about bad practice that showed governors up as incompetent. “They don’t like negative publicity, that’s what concerns them,” he says. “It was about them taking on the strength of the POA.“

It is, of course, almost impossible to know the truth about the typical prison officer’s attitude to his charges: anyone who can give you an account of the uncensored dynamic has an agenda. It is certainly true that there are many good officers, as Daniel and Jake both acknowledge. Jake speaks with particular fondness of one woman who left his cell door open so that they might discuss the Edward Snowden affair, and later invited him to a wedding. Nick Hardwick’s report also notes the work of some positive, caring members of staff.

But overall, the report is damning. More than a third of prisoners say they have been threatened by staff, which, whether a reliable figure or not, compares to a national average of 25 per cent. Hardwick and his colleagues saw staff behaving in a way that was “at best distant and at worst dismissive”. This is nothing new. When he was in charge, Sir Martin Narey says, he tried to reinvent the staff. “I brought in a five GCSE minimum, stopped taking ex-squaddies – we poured the people in,” he says. “These bright young people who we want to change the culture. But you’d visit 10 weeks later and you’d find the culture had just absorbed them.”

And, when Zahid Mubarek died, Sir Martin admitted that the Prison Service was institutionally racist. “I used to get searched a little bit more than the white folks,” remembers Zahid’s father. “The way they looked at you, it was like you weren’t wanted there. And Zahid was always being watched.”

There is evidence that some progress has been made, but Daniel, who is black, says that he has seen racism on the part of officers today – not explicit, perhaps, but a consistent tendency to single out ethnic minority prisoners, Asians in particular, for bad treatment. Andy Darken scoffs at this idea. “You see it between prisoners,” he says. (Indeed, foreign prisoners told Hardwick’s report that they were particularly afraid of attack by their fellow inmates.) “But I’ve never seen an officer take action against a prisoner because of his ethnicity. Normally it’s where people have not thought about what they’ve said. A racist joke, calling someone ‘coloured’. In the prison setting, there’s a high majority of ethnic minority prisoners. Almost anything that happens with them where I take firm action is [claimed to be] because of their ethnicity, ‘innit’. No, it’s because you’ve broken the rules.”

The Ministry of Justice would not grant an interview with any official for this piece, or answer specific questions about the issues it raises. It did issue a statement on behalf of governor Glenn Knight, saying that he and his colleagues were ‘working hard to reduce the level of violent incidents’ and ‘implementing a thorough action plan to address each of the recommendations made by the Chief Inspector.’

Glenn Knight is well-regarded. But many of his predecessors at Feltham have been, too; many have been defeated. And if there is a comprehensive answer to the prison’s problems, or those of the system that created them, it is unlikely to be enacted any time soon. The prospects, already limited by the punitive tone of the public debate on the subject, are further reduced by the fact that cuts mean reductions in resources are more likely than improvements. That may mean more hours locked up, and fewer useful activities, and less food. With all that in mind, it is hard to be optimistic that the next report will hail a successful revolution. Any reduction in violence is a laudable goal, and if that is achieved, it will be a meaningful improvement.

Nearly everyone I spoke to shared Sir Martin Narey’s view: Feltham’s problems are now ‘in the walls’ of the place. Perhaps that building, that institution, will never be able to escape its past. “A clean start really makes a difference,” he says. “When you open somewhere, you can move a lot of experienced staff from other establishments. You can reinvent a culture.”

But that’s unlikely. Whatever becomes of Feltham, Daniel and Jake do not intend to return. Both exceptionally smart, they seem like highly plausible candidates to escape the pull of reoffending that affects such a high proportion of inmates. Jake, certainly an anomaly within Feltham when he went in, is involved in a number of projects in the arts; Daniel, who says he was helped enormously by his involvement in a Howard League project called U R BOSS, has big plans, with an application to a prestigious university course on the cards after he has completed an access course.

Despite their confidence in the future, both remember their release as a moment of some trepidation. “The gate opens, and it shuts behind you, and you’re in the car park, and that’s it,” says Davis. “You are completely free. But god, I felt kind of isolated.” Not a natural respecter of authority, he recalls, with some bemusement, calling the bus driver ‘sir’.

Daniel, for his part, felt “anxious - liberated, but anxious. You feel every single minute drag as you come closer and closer to the point that you’re never going to have to see the same faces again, deal with the staff, with the intensity, and then you’re free.” He didn’t know where he was going, and he had never taken the train home alone before. “I can see how hard it would be if you didn’t know what you were doing when you got out,” he says.

On the last day, the officers were kind to both of them. To Daniel, though, it’s another moment that sticks out. “It’s those little niggling comments,” he said. He shook his head and laughed. “When I left, one guy said: ‘we’ll keep your bed warm for you.’ But I’m not going back.”

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