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Reaching for the sun in a South African township, a child's hand grasps the wires on a fence as if stretching for freedom. The sunburst is located at the tip of the middle finger.
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Too many black and minority children in custody

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For the first time, the majority of children in YOIs are from a BAME background.

Some improvements

There have been some encouraging signs of improvement in safety at some establishments, but history tells us that all too often early signs of improvement have not been sustained.

That’s the rather positive headline from this year’s Children in Custody report published by HMI Probation and the Youth Justice Board on Monday (28 January 2019). The report presents an analysis of 12–18-year-olds’ perceptions of their experiences in secure training centres and young offender institutions for the year 2017/18.

However, despite indications of improved behaviour, significant numbers of children in both types of establishment still said they had felt unsafe at some time. The figures were 34% for STCs and 40% in YOIs.

In February 2017, Chief Prison Inspector Peter Clarke warned the Minister for Victims, Youth and Family Justice that HM Inspectorate of Prisons could not then classify any STC or YOI as safe enough to hold children, because of high levels of violence.

This year (2017-18), Mr Clarke cautiously praised some improvement:

A key factor in securing a safe environment for children in custody is finding positive ways to encourage good behaviour. During the year we published a thematic report on this subject, the key finding of which was that all effective behaviour management was underpinned by positive relationships between staff and children. Building those positive relationships is a key challenge for both STCs and YOIs, given the shortages of staff, their high turnover rates and, in too many establishments, very poor time out of cell for the children.

The independent HMIP report was commissioned by the Youth Justice Board (YJB). Mr Clarke said the YJB and the recently created Youth Custody Service (YCS) within the prison service should fully understand a notable finding in the perceptions analysis. This is that significantly more (87%) children in STCs reported being treated respectfully by staff than the 64% of boys who did so in YOIs.

One key figure in the report revealed that over half the children in YOIs (51%) reported that they came from a BAME background; an issue which this blog post focuses on.

Key findings

A total of 686 children, from a population in custody of just under 840, answered questions in a survey. Key findings included:

  • 42% of children in STCs identified as being from a black or other minority ethnic background;
  • Over half of children (56%) in STCs reported that they had been physically restrained in the centre;
  • Nearly a third of children in STCs (30%) reported being victimised by other children by being shouted at through windows;
  • Over half (51%) of boys in YOIs identified as being from a black or minority ethnic background, the highest rate recorded in surveys of YOIs.
  • Half of children (50%) in YOIs reported that they had been physically restrained.

Lammy

This is the first time that the number of children in Young Offender Institutions from BAME backgrounds are in the majority; even higher than the figure of 41% in David Lammy’s report published in September 2017.

For this reason, I have paid particularly attention to the report’s findings for boys in custody from a black or minority ethnic background. These boys were less likely to report that they:

  • had been in local authority care (34% compared with 45%);
  • were sentenced (69% compared with 83%);
  • had a sentence that was 12 months or less (19% compared with 36%).

BAME boys reported more negatively than white boys in some areas. In particular, black and minority ethnic boys reported that staff were significantly less likely to ask them if they needed help or support with:

  • not being able to smoke (40% compared with 64%);
  • loss of property (14% compared with 24%);
  • feeling scared (17% compared with 36%);
  • money worries (14% compared with 24%);
  • feeling worried/upset/needing someone to talk to (24% compared with 42% of white boys).


Boys from an ethnic minority background also reported more negatively with regards to aspects of daily life, respect and relationships with staff. Black and minority ethnic boys were significantly less likely than other boys to say that:

  • they were able to have a shower every day (66% compared with 85%);
  • the canteen sold a wide enough variety of products (34% compared with 47%);
  • they could speak to a member of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) (14% compared with 24%);
  • they had met their personal officer, for those that had them, in the first week (23% compared with 41%).

This is an area where ministers need to show clear leadership in addressing a report which shows racial disparity growing rather than being effectively tackled.

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