Interview: Courage of her convictions

Alison Bennett
Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Penelope Gibbs, director of strategy to reduce child and youth imprisonment, Prison Reform Trust.

Penelope Gibbs. Credit: Peter Crane
Penelope Gibbs. Credit: Peter Crane

With the youth custodial population close to an all-time high, it takes a determined woman to lead a campaign to stem the tide. Penelope Gibbs is that woman.

Gibbs, who is five months into her post as director of the Prison Reform Trust's strategy to reduce child and youth imprisonment, has had an impressive, if varied career.

She was previously a radio producer for the BBC and director of the Voluntary Action Media Unit, part of the charity TimeBank. However, youth imprisonment became an issue close to her heart after she spent three years as a magistrate.

"I've seen in courts how some young people end up in prison," says Gibbs. "I personally felt that prison should be a last resort and that it was being overused."

The trust's five-year strategy is funded by £1.5m from the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and focuses on several key areas, including the diversion of young offenders with mental health issues.

Gibbs says sentencers need more alternatives to prison if anything is to change. "There's a consensus that the government isn't happy with the number of under-18s in prison. But we've got to the point where politicians say they're not happy but believe sentencers think the children need to be there. And the magistrates are saying: 'We're not happy but we've got no alternatives'."

Gibbs supports the idea of intensive fostering, where children are taken into the home of an experienced foster parent instead of custody, although she maintains that there should be no alternative to prison for violent offences.

The strategy also focuses on ways to combat the prevalence of looked-after children in the criminal justice system. "There's a huge proportion of looked-after children in custody, as well as children who have been in contact with the social services even if they haven't been in care," Gibbs says.

She adds that these young people in particular need strong support if they are to be diverted away from crime. "It's something we want to put the spotlight on. I heard about a child in a children's home who had an Asbo. When they broke it their social worker reported them to the police and appeared in court as a witness for the prosecution. I'm not saying the crime shouldn't be addressed but why create a situation where looked-after children are flooding the criminal justice system?"

Conditions in youth prisons are high on the political agenda at the moment, with the Ministry of Justice-ordered review of restraint due to be published before April.

Gibbs says she hopes this review will tie together all the loose ends that make restraint so variable. "The review is so needed," she says. "We've got different rules for secure training centres, young offender institutions and secure children's homes. Then schools have to use restraint, as well as people in psychiatric care. What we need is for everyone to get down to the nitty-gritty of what should be allowed."

Gibbs is also keen for the life stories of imprisoned young people to be heard by the general public to reinforce the message that they are people too. "One problem is that the children and young people are perceived to be monsters but, when you meet them, most of them aren't," she says. "If there's one thing I'd like to do, it would be to change the rhetoric so people talk about them as children with problems who have committed crimes."

The idea is to record young people's hard-hitting stories for audiences to help change their opinions. "I'd like to get their stories heard by more people," she says. "I'm not saying their crimes should be excused but it would help people to see that these young people are all individuals who frequently have hard life stories. But maybe that's just the radio producer in me."

- The Prison Reform Trust's strategy to reduce child and youth imprisonment received £1.5m from the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund last April

- The strategy focuses on several areas. These include lobbying government, working with sentencers, conducting research into child and youth imprisonment and suggesting and advocating possible alternatives to youth custody

- www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk

Background Prison Reform Trust's youth strategy.

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