Reconfiguring the youth justice prison system

The majority of children in custody are themselves victims of abuse. The figures are staggering: 39% have been subject to a child protection plan, and experienced abuse of neglect; 76% have an absent father; 47% have run away or absconded; and 39% have been subject to a child protection place, and experienced abuse or neglect. Considering the struggle many of these children have experienced so early in their short lives, it’s surely not surprising that so many find themselves on a path of criminality and destruction.

The situation deteriorates further once children enter custody. Figures show that our nation’s youth justice system is failing children who enter the youth justice system. Vulnerable children too often leave the system far more damaged than when they entered.

Photo by Shayan Sanyal, from Flickr.

Photo by Shayan Sanyal, from Flickr.

The high levels of abuse children experience in custody indicate that there is a dire need to examine the institutional environment of the three secure estates where children are imprisoned. At present children are either imprisoned in under-18 Young Offender Institutions (YOIs), Secure Training Centres (SCTs), or Secure Children’s Homes (SCHs). Currently most children are imprisoned in YOIs. At the end of August 2013 there were 842 children held in YOIs, 270 in STCs, and 127 in SCHs.

YOIs and STCs have a poor record of delivering positive outcomes for children and have been described as adult prisons with children in them. But they are the cheapest option. YOIs and STCs have historically been the target of criticism from youth justice charities. Problems at YOIs and STcs have included suicides, bullying, and unsafe conditions for children. YOIs and STCs have the highest assault rates of any prisons in England and Wales.

The Government recently launched a so-called radical plan to convert YOIs into Secure Training Colleges, where education would be put at the forefront of youth justice. The plan is far from radical. It is simply a rebranding exercise. It is an attempt to rebrand YOIs into educational institutions, which offer 30 hours of education every week, double the education time currently provided by YOIs. Other than increasing education time, there are no major differences between YOIs and Secure Training Colleges.

As Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform said, “confusion is at the heart of these plans, which risk repeating the mistakes of history such as the failing of secure training centers, where reoffending is sky high and two children have died.” While an emphasis on education is welcomed, particularly given that 47% of children in youth custody are underachieving at school, it is important to remember that children in custody have complex problems, and therefore require a holistic support package. Before increasing the educational requirements, children’s deep-rooted problems need to be tackled in prisons. One potential way of providing the support children require is by increasing the numbers of SCHs, and closing down YOIs, STCs, and Secure Training Colleges.

Evidence shows that children’s needs would be better accommodated in SCHs. SCHs, which are run by local authorities on therapeutic grounds with a high staff-child ratio, could be the preferred model for secure placements, both in terms of their size and operation. A recent inspection of the Young People’s Unit at HMP and YOI Parc, which holds around 50 young people, found a direct link between the size of the establishment and the fact that in small establishments fewer children felt unsafe and that they had better relationships with staff.

Staffed primarily by social workers and support staff who are equipped to work with the youngest, and most vulnerable, SCHs have links to local and statutory services, which are vital to the delivery of interventions that are best placed to address the complex needs of youth offenders. Children receive 30 hours of high quality, individualized learning per week, the same amount of education time, which will be provided by Secure Training Colleges.

Surely it is safer and more humane to detain children in small, local units with a high staff ratio and where they can maintain links with their families, and children’s services. Such links can also lead to better planned resettlement, and therefore reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

The recent reduction in the number of children in custody has not been used as an opportunity to invest in the best option in the most challenging circumstances for the very few children who do require a period in a secure environment. Instead SCH have been cut to save money in the short term. In 2003 there were 28 SCHs in England, and since 2003, 12 have closed.

Evidence shows that locking up youth offenders does not stop them from offending, but actually supporting them in the right environment might.


Robert Flello is a contributing author for where this article originally appeared.

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