Reaching out to the inside

Many of the inmates at Feltham young offenders institution
require support if they are to improve the quality of their lives.
Here, Alison Miller describes the work of an award-winning
counselling team working hard to improve inmates’ sense of
well-being, and, hopefully, cut reoffending rates.

When Feltham young offenders institution hits the news it seldom
makes for comfortable reading. A scathing attack on conditions at
Feltham in west London was launched in March 1999 by the chief
inspector of prisons Sir David Ramsbotham. He said conditions at
the largest young offenders institution in Europe, which usually
houses about 900 inmates, were “totally unacceptable in a civilised

Although his follow-up report in February 2000 praised
improvements, Sir David cautioned that the changes had yet to
result in real progress in treatment and conditions for young

As recently as August last year a deputy governor resigned in
protest at the “Dickensian conditions” endured by inmates. And in
November, an internal prison service report severely criticised the
institution after Zahid Mubarek was murdered by his racist

It is against this backdrop that Outreach Counselling Within
Feltham Young Offenders Institution offers counselling and advice
to inmates. The project, which won the young offenders category at
last year’s Community Care awards, is part of Hounslow
Youth Counselling Service (HYCS), which offers free, confidential
one-to-one counselling to young people aged between 14 and 24 in
the borough.

The idea for the outreach service at Feltham was born three
years ago after HYCS realised that it was not meeting its aim of
offering counselling to all young people in the borough because it
did not have a presence at the institution.

HYCS secured funding for three years and set up a pilot project.
It quickly became apparent that the project needed to be extended.
There has been a steady increase in clients since then, and demand
for counselling outstrips the supply of qualified, security-cleared

Leonie Garwood is chairperson of the management committee, and
one of two qualified counsellors going into Feltham each week.
“There is a huge need for our service,” she says.

Referrals come from the health care unit within the prison.
Weekly management referral meetings are held to discuss inmates who
are considered to be in need of some sort of intervention. These
are attended by the outreach service’s part-time co-ordinator
Patricia David. If it is felt to be appropriate, the young person
will be referred to the outreach service. Some referrals come from
the Children’s Society, which has its national remand review
initiative based in several YOIs around the country, including
Feltham. The aim of the initiative is to find alternatives to
custody for young offenders while they await trial.

The current system of referrals effectively means the outreach
service is only involved in crisis intervention, where a young
prisoner is displaying behaviour giving rise to serious concern
about his mental or physical well-being. “We simply don’t have the
resources to extend our service to young men who just need someone
to talk to,” says Garwood. “We often find that when we come out
from a counselling session other inmates will ask if we can see
them. Unfortunately, at the moment we can only counsel those in the
most need.”

It is important for the counsellors to separate themselves from
the prison establishment in the minds of the young men. Garwood
says: “Establishing trust is key. You have to make it clear early
on that you don’t work for the prison and that anything they reveal
is confidential, with the proviso that if we believe they are in
danger of harming themselves or others we may have to break that

Garwood and her colleagues are keyholders, which means they have
been security checked and have had security training. “We pick up
keys in the same way as the prison officers and are able to move
around the prison,” she says.

The practicalities of working within a prison present many
difficulties. “Finding a room to have a private meeting always
proves difficult. The prison rules state that inmates must be
visible to prison officers at all times,” Garwood explains.

In practice this means that counselling can only take place in
rooms that have large windows – hardly conducive to a private
one-to-one counselling session. Garwood recounts one occasion when
the only room available to meet her client was the TV and video
room. This meant that inmates had to clear the room and be locked
up in their cells while Garwood and her client had their

Counselling sessions last for one hour and the service uses a
person-centred approach that means the counsellors will deal with
anything the client brings to the meeting that day. The service
aims to enable the young men to explore and reflect on their lives
and the situation they are in. It hopes this may reduce the risk of
reoffending and increase their contribution to, and their
involvement in, society.

Garwood finds there is a definite pattern in the young men’s
experiences. “A high proportion of the young men I see are parents
– probably about 80 per cent,” she says. “Many have dropped out of
school very young, have become disaffected and turned to drugs.
Once addicted they use burglary to sustain their drug habit.”

Other common factors, she says, are a lack of good parenting
combined with a dysfunctional family background. They are often
distressed about the fact that they have a young child and that it
is difficult to sustain family relationships over the telephone.
The counsellors also do a lot of work around anger management.

Personal visits are few and far between – convicted prisoners
are only allowed visitors once a fortnight – so the outreach
service provides vital human contact for these young men. Staff are
often called in to see prisoners who are on suicide watch.

“Sometimes you sit for a whole hour with somebody who is very
distressed and has attempted to commit suicide. My role is to
listen to what they have to say. It’s important to give them the
opportunity to talk about what is going on in their lives – to a
lot of people it is a desperate place they are in,” Garwood

Although continuity of care is very important, Garwood often
rings Feltham to arrange to meet a client, only to find he has been
moved to another institution hundreds of miles away. Paradoxically,
prisoners who are receiving medical treatment are not usually moved
until their treatment is complete. Prisoners who are receiving
counselling, however, can be moved at any time.

Like many small charities, funding is a constant worry. Garwood,
with the help of another volunteer, takes responsibility for
fundraising. It is frustrating knowing there are so many young
prisoners who want to use the outreach service, but the resources
aren’t there to help them, she says. Community Care‘s
award money will go some way to help by funding a part-time
outreach project worker. This worker will be responsible for
promoting counselling at Feltham, developing working relationships
within the prison, liaising with the health care unit, and
attending the weekly management referral team meetings.

Young offenders don’t have a great public image – indeed parts
of the media are more interested in calling for retribution than
looking beyond the offending behaviour of these young men to the
root causes of their problems. The work of the outreach counselling
service at Feltham is a wake-up call to the importance of
understanding and care for this section of society.

Project profile

  • Project: Outreach Counselling Within Feltham Young Offenders
  • History: The project is part of Hounslow Youth Counselling
    Service which offers free confidential counselling to all young
    people aged between 14 and 24 who live, work or attend college in
    the London Borough of Hounslow. Three years ago the service decided
    it needed to extend its work to Feltham young offenders
    institution. A pilot project was set up after HYCS secured funding
    of £16,000 over three years from the Hayward Foundation and
    the Pilgrim Trust. Over the past three years the outreach service
    has worked with six young prisoners each week.
  • Funding: HYCS provides office space, counselling rooms and pays
    for a part-time co-ordinator. Any other income comes through
  • Staff: One part-time paid co-ordinator. All other staff who
    work for the service are volunteers – HYCS has a team of about 30,
    the majority of whom are qualified counsellors. Two counsellors go
    into Feltham each week.
  • Clients: Those at Feltham young offenders institution are aged
    between 14 and 20. They are particularly vulnerable and
    marginalised, suffering from mental ill health while also dealing
    with the stress of being in prison.
  • Contact: Patricia David, Hounslow Youth Counselling Service, 78
    St Johns Road, Isleworth, Middlesex TW1 6RU. Tel: 020 8568

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