Analysis: Youth justice - Youth prisons no place for children

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

As the Youth Justice Board prepares to welcome its new chair this week, two former YJB figures, Jon Fayle and Rob Allen, outline their case for the transformation of the youth custody regime to meet the welfare needs of young offenders.

Inside a prison. Credit: Robin Hammond/Guzelian
Inside a prison. Credit: Robin Hammond/Guzelian

It has been eight years since the Youth Justice Board (YJB) took over responsibility for the way we lock up the 3,000 children in custody in England and Wales. But the radical transformation that was hoped for has not been achieved and improvements have been largely superficial. The transfer of responsibility for the Prison Service from the Home Office to the newly created Ministry of Justice, and the sharing of responsibility with the Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF), provides a long-overdue opportunity for radical reform. The arrival of Frances Done as the YJB's new chair on 1 February, also offers fresh hope.

In 2000, the then chief inspector of prisons David (now Lord) Ramsbotham recommended removing responsibility for juveniles from the Prison Service altogether and setting up a juvenile secure agency. This was a step too far for Home Secretary Jack Straw who chose instead to ask the YJB to bring about improvements through a process of commissioning and purchasing secure places from a variety of providers.

The YJB inherited a chaotic system. Most children in custody - 85 per cent - were held by the Prison Service in young offender institutions (YOIs). It is still the case that YOIs hold the overwhelming majority of children in custody.

Some progress has been made in improving regimes and raising standards for children held in prison in relation to health, education and child protection, but these improvements are quite superficial.

Adult arrangements

Walk around a YOI and one will be left in no doubt that it is first and foremost a prison. This is not surprising. The Prison Service is an organisation designed for adults, who are 96 per cent of its clientele. The orientation towards adults is reflected in arrangements for management, staffing, training, and regime content.

YOIs holding juveniles are managed by area managers with generic responsibility for all prisons. Similarly, Prison Service staff are generally recruited for work in any prison. Inevitably, there is much stronger emphasis on security, control and the prevention of escape, than on child welfare. While some training improvements have been achieved, arrangements are way off the YJB vision.

There is significant resistance from the Prison Officers Association to a child- centred approach. After a disturbance at Hindley YOI in Lancashire in 2005 the association asserted that its members within the juvenile estate have had their dignity systematically stripped from them by managers terrified of rocking the liberal boat. In October 2007, the association called for the use of batons to be available in children's prisons. It is difficult to imagine a more stark illustration of the cultural gulf that exists between Prison Service culture and a child-centred, welfare-based approach.

The physical conditions in YOIs leave much to be desired. YOIs are designed in a similar way to adult prisons, with children housed in small spartan cells, where they are generally held for at least 10 hours a day. The design is dominated by the need for security and the prevention of escape, rather than the meeting of welfare needs.

As for regimes, these are also dominated by adult considerations. Physical restraint is an example where holds designed for adults are used, inflicting pain to produce compliance and often causing injury. The inquiry into restraint being conducted by two former social services directors promises much needed change to its deployment.

But it's an inescapable conclusion of this analysis that while provision of the majority of places for children lies within an adult-dominated organisation - in the shape of the Prison Service - the radical change required is not possible.

Prison isn't working

Latest Home Office statistics published in July last year show that 76 per cent of children leaving custody in the first quarter of 2005 re-offended within a year. Depressingly, this is more or less the same as the figure for 2000, before the YJB embarked on its reform programme. It is clear that custody, at least in the way it is currently provided, does not work in reducing re-offending.

Recent moves by the government offer a chance for a more radical change in policy. But for genuine reform to occur, the Prison Service should be stripped of its responsibility of providing custody of children and the DCSF must take the lead in bringing in a culture in youth prisons that makes inmates less likely to reoffend once they are outside (see box).

We continue to waste huge amounts of public money on locking up children. About £281m a year - 70 per cent of the YJB's budget - is spent on custody. Unless these reforms are implemented, there will be no change to this dismal state of affairs.- Jon Fayle was head of policy for the juvenile secure estate at the YJB from 2002 to 2006 and is now a freelance consultant.- Rob Allen was a member of the YJB from 1998 to 2006 and is now director of the International Centre for Prison Studies.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR REFORM

- A separate agency should be set up to take over responsibility for the provision of custody of children from the Prison Service

- The Department for Children, Schools and Families should engineer a shift towards prison regimes that take account of children's welfare

- Fresh measures should be introduced to slash the number of children in custody, so resources can be more effectively deployed to meet the needs of children who genuinely need to be there.

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