Fears over custody staff drop

Recruitment campaigns and improved training are vital to make the secure estate safer, say experts.

Staff shortages have coincided with higher incidents of abuse and neglect in YOIs. Picture: Guzelian
Staff shortages have coincided with higher incidents of abuse and neglect in YOIs. Picture: Guzelian

A Freedom of Information (FoI) request by youth justice charity Article 39 found that a total of 557 allegations of abuse and neglect were made across six local authorities within youth custody establishments in their areas.

The revelation comes as recruitment of Youth Custody Service (YCS) staff has dropped for the first time since 2016, when the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) launched a campaign to boost prison officer numbers in the youth secure estate, latest government figures show.

However, since the end of 2018, “there have been no active recruitment campaigns for prison officers in YCS sites”, the MoJ says.

On 30 September 2019, 1,735 full-time members of staff were employed in the YCS, down from 1,759 in June 2019.

June’s figure marked the first fall in the workforce since March 2015 when the figure was 1,220. Since then numbers had steadily increased every quarter, peaking at 1,787 in March 2019.

In the three months leading up to September 2019, figures show that 205 staff left posts in the YCS – more than in any quarter since March 2014.

Meanwhile, the number of people joining the service (311) was at its lowest since March 2018.

England’s three secure training centres – Oakham, Medway and Northamptonshire – were left with 29 fewer staff on 30 September 2019 compared with the same date a year earlier.

Frances Crook, chief executive for the Howard League for Penal Reform, suggests a number of factors could have contributed to the cut in workforce numbers.

A lack of qualifications, low pay and “poor status” has historically led more people to apply for roles in the police.

In the wake of Brexit, a government push on recruitment at Border Force may have also affected the number of applicants for prison officer roles, she says.

Abuse and neglect

Article 39’s FoI data showed Oakhill secure training centre (STC), run by G4S in Milton Keynes, had the highest number of abuse and neglect findings, with more than half (52) of the 98 allegations found to be substantiated. Milton Keynes Council told Article 39 that 27 members of staff were the subject of police investigations between 2016 and 2019.

Leeds City Council (Wetherby Young Offender Institution (YOI)) reported 47 allegations and Staffordshire Council (Werrington YOI) reported 10 allegations between 2016/17 and 2018/19.

The London Borough of Hounslow (Feltham YOI), Medway Council (Medway STC and Cookham Wood YOI) and Northamptonshire Council (Rainsbrook STC) did not release full figures on the outcomes of investigations.

The government has said it intends to establish secure schools to replace existing youth custody provision in plans first announced in 2016. The first is due to open in early 2021 on the Medway STC site.

However, experts have called for a shake-up of the recruitment and training of staff working in youth custody establishments.

“Would you want to work at Oakham or Feltham?”, Crook asks. “You need no formal qualifications to apply to be a prison officer which means there is a perceived lack of status around the role.

“You have people with no training working with young people with often very complex needs, for very little pay,” she says. “It takes up to six years to train to be a fully qualified teacher or a nurse, so why is it any different for staff working with these vulnerable young people?

“What we need is an incentivised workforce that is properly trained to deal with what they are seeing day in, day out.”

Caroline Willow, director of Article 39, says the findings show that “prisons are desperately unsafe places for children”.

“If families or children’s homes were subjecting children to this level of risk, they would have child protection social workers knocking at their doors. Every child, no matter where they live, has the right to feel and be safe. If you cannot provide this basic level of security, then there is simply no chance of turning around a child’s life,” she adds.

A Youth Custody Service spokesperson said: “Staff are trained to resolve conflict verbally and we are clear that restraint should only be used as a last resort, where there is a risk of harm to self or others, and no other form of intervention is possible or appropriate.”


David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, says he fears disproportionality in the justice system has “gotten worse” since his review on the issue was published in 2017.

The Lammy Review prompted the prison service, for adults and juveniles, commit to diversifying its workforce by ensuring 14 per cent of recruits were from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

Government figures show that on 30 September 2019, 15.1 per cent of the youth custody service’s overall workforce were from BAME backgrounds.

However, just over half of BAME applicants in 2018 were offered positions, MoJ documents reveal.

BAME applicants made up 28.4 per cent of prison officer applicants between 1 October 2017 and 31 September 2019, with just over half accepting formal offers.

“Now more than ever we need to look to examples of initiatives that are successful at recruiting high-quality, diverse candidates to all parts of the criminal justice system,” says Lammy.

“Recruiters should go through evidence-based, unconscious bias training and those candidates who just miss out on a job should be offered professional development training. At a time when the BAME population in young offenders is up to 51 per cent, we need to make every possible effort to restore trust.”

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