02:16, August 11 153 0 theguardian.com

2019-08-11 02:16:04
Police sent into Feltham youth prison to tackle gang violence

Police have been sent in to quell mounting levels of violence inside one of Britain’s most notorious young offender institutions, triggering concerns that its staff cannot control the gangs operating within it.

A five-strong team of officers has been dispatched to help bring order to the troubled Feltham site, the Observer has learned.

Concerns about the west London institution were confirmed by a recent report from the chief inspector of prisons who warned that there had been an “extraordinary” decline in safety and care at Feltham, which is home to about 100 offenders.

Now, in a letter to the Labour peer Lord Ponsonby, justice minister Lord Keen has confirmed that police “have been reintroduced to London prisons (including Feltham YOI) by way of five police officers with a specific focus on addressing gang membership and violence”.

Keen added: “A significant proportion of the work of this team will be taking place at Feltham, which has included investigating a number of incidents, including acts of concerted indiscipline, that have happened at the establishment in recent months. This work is part of wider efforts to tackle and address gang issues and violence within London.”

In his report last month Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, said the past six months had brought “what can only be described as a collapse in performance and outcomes for the children being held in Feltham A. The speed of this decline has been extraordinary.”

The report found that there were very high levels of violence, a high use of staff force, poor care, long periods of cell lock-up and escalating self-harm.

The situation is considered to be so serious that offenders are no longer being sent to Feltham, which is now subject to an “urgent notification” process, an obligation for the government to make rapid improvements.

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said that it was essential for the police and the prison services to work closely together. But he questioned what the decision to send in police said about Feltham and the wider issue of tackling violence in jails.

Official reports have also highlighted gang problems at Pentonville, Thameside and Isis prisons.

“Safety and order within a prison, is the day-to-day responsibility of the governor and prison staff, not the police,” Dawson said. “The recent distressing inspection report on Feltham stands in stark contrast to a very positive and equally recent report about a larger, but otherwise similar, young offender institution in the north of England.

“This huge discrepancy in the quality of care demands the urgent attention of a new justice secretary, and the chief inspector was right to insist upon that. He helpfully pointed to the core issue – a need to address the causes of violence and escape the cycle of reacting endlessly to it.”

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said there was an urgent need to rethink the problems presented by gangs.

“The policing of gangs in the community has failed. Putting more police into jails is not going to solve a problem there that you have failed to solve in the community; you have to be a bit cleverer.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: “Prisons in London are being supported by specialist police officers to help tackle gang-related violence. They work alongside our staff to identify those involved and help them turn their backs on crime.”