Relationship training key to custody reform

Derren Hayes
Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The chief inspector of prisons' most recent annual report paints a worrying picture of relationships between young people in custody and officers.

The chief inspector's report found only two-thirds of children felt officers in young offender institutions (YOI) and secure training centres (STC) treated them with respect, 27 per cent reported being victimised by staff and 43 per cent felt unsafe.

Such conditions are furtive ground for resentment and violence to breed, so it should come as no surprise that a recent inspection of Medway STC found staff used "force and restraint" to deal with "children's passive non-compliance".

Campaigners argue that use of pain-inducing restraint on children is unlawful. A recent serious case review into physical abuse by officers at Medway STC also called for the use of such techniques to be banned in youth custody.

However, the chief inspector's report highlights how custody staff use force to protect children from harm. Nathan Ward, the former manager at Medway STC who blew the whistle on abuse there, also says pain-inducing restraint is sometimes necessary to prevent children harming themselves and others (see Analysis). What is crucial, says Ward, is that officers only use it as a last resort.

For that to happen, there needs to be far greater emphasis on building relationships with young people - an inspectorate report last year highlighted that positive relationships underpin effective behaviour management systems in youth custody.

This is easy to say, but hard to achieve - the cohort of young people now in custody tend to be persistent offenders with the most entrenched behaviour problems. The chief inspector's report praises Parc YOI for enhancing supervision arrangements and consultation with young people in a bid to improve relationships with staff.

However, that alone will not deliver the sea change needed. More fundamental change could be provided by the Unlocked programme, a two-year graduate trainee scheme for prison officers. Through Unlocked - which last year was extended to youth custody settings - officers undertake in-depth training on how to persuade and influence prisoners, de-escalate aggressive situations and build strong relationships with them.

The numbers are still small - a total of 100 trainees in year two - but the programme's focus on reducing reoffending and rehabilitation could deliver the fundamental change Ward and others think is needed to make youth custody a safer place for children.

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