Fears for children's safety as youth jails near capacity

Neil Puffett
Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Ministry of Justice has refused to confirm fears that youth jails have reached capacity or outline its contingency plans to deal with the situation amid concerns that children's lives are being put in danger through overcrowding.

Some children being remanded in custody without being properly risk assessed, according to the Howard League's Andrew Neilson. Image: Phil Adams
Some children being remanded in custody without being properly risk assessed, according to the Howard League's Andrew Neilson. Image: Phil Adams

New MoJ statistics show that, as of midday yesterday (17 August), 259 juveniles had appeared in court in relation to rioting, with potentially many more to follow.

Of these, 121 were granted bail, 22 convicted and 86 remanded in custody with the details of 30 not being recorded, meaning as many as 138 additional children are now behind bars.

Based on the latest overall custody figures available (for June), there were 2,253 children in youth jails with space for just 141 more prior to the riots.

The recent increase would place the system on the brink of being officially full with many more court cases still to come, but the MoJ and YJB have both refused to confirm whether capacity has been reached, or reveal details of how they are planning to deal with rising numbers of children in custody.

There have already been seven deaths of teenagers in custody so far this year and it is feared overcrowding could result in children’s safety being put at risk.

The Youth Justice Board’s Secure Estate Strategy consultation document for 2011/12 to 2014/15, published just last month, reveals that "the demand for custodial places could outstrip existing provision should there be a sudden increase in the number of young people being remanded or sentenced to custody".

It adds that "population management becomes more challenging and safeguarding risks may increase as the estate operates closer to capacity".

The Youth Justice Board’s (YJB) maximum operating limit is set at 93 per cent, a figure already exceeded prior to the riots.

Andrew Neilson, assistant director at the Howard League for Penal Reform, told CYP Now the YJB is likely to have already started "doubling up" children in cells, a practice that brings inherent risks.

In 2000, 19-year-old Zahid Mubarek was murdered by his white racist cellmate Robert Stewart at Feltham YOI.

Guidance on the YJB website reveals that the board has a "strong preference" that children and young people in the secure estate are accommodated in cells of their own but that if sharing is done there should be risk assessments, consideration given to compatibility, and consultation carried out with those involved.

But Neilson said that the court system is currently "chaos", with some children being remanded in custody without being properly risk assessed. He added that the fact that youth offending teams may not be on hand to give valuable advice to magistrates could lead to members of rival gangs potentially being placed in cells together.

Another option is "re-rolling" other prison establishments that are not full, although this leaves the problem of them potentially being run by staff with no experience of dealing with children.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman pointed CYP Now to figures breaking down how rioters had been dealt with in court but did not release details of the total number of children currently in the secure estate or whether capacity had been reached.

Requests for detail on contingency plans for housing additional children in custody or how they will be safeguarded were also refused.

The spokeswoman said: "This is an unprecedented situation and communication between all agencies involved has overall been effective and efficient."

"We have robust contingency plans in place to create more space if needed. We are confident we have space for both juveniles (aged 15 to 17) and young offenders (aged 18 to 21) within the prison estate to deal with those committed to custody by the courts in relation to the recent street disturbances."

YJB director of performance Lucy Dawes said: "Safety takes precedence over capacity issues. Despite the rise in demand we are dealing with at this time, the safety of children and young people in custody is the first priority of everyone working within the youth justice system.

"Our maximum operating figures are based on the number of beds we commission, not the number of places in the system as a whole. This fact, together with our contingency plans, which include bringing new units into use early, means that we are confident we can accommodate the rise in numbers of young people in our care.

"The unflagging commitment of all those who work in youth justice has never been more apparent. Everyone from YOTs to the secure estate staff and the staff of the YJB are working together to manage the current challenge, and are managing it very effectively. The system we have all worked so hard to create in the last decade or so is being tested an d will not be found wanting."

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