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Stoke Heath young offender institute
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

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

Systemic problems in Young Offender Institutions

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The welcome fall in the number of children in custody means that those who remain represent a more concentrated mix of very challenging young people, held in a smaller number of establishments that are increasingly unsuitable to meet their needs, and cared for by a staff group beset by shortages and a lack of training for their complex and demanding role.

The state of Young Offender Institutions

I don’t usually post on individual prison inspection reports, but last week’s (22 September 2015) Report on an unannounced inspection of HMYOI Cookham Wood was so damning, and so typical of the problems currently besetting young offender institutions and the wider prison estate, that I have.

In his annual report, Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick, noted that although the number of children held in custody continued to decline substantially (from 858 on 31 March 2014 to 792 one year later), the conditions in which they are held are worsening. In particular, he drew attention to increasing violence, more time spent locked up and the difficulties in being kept further away from friends and families.

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About Cookham Wood

At the time of this inspection, HMYOI Cookham Wood held 166 boys, most aged 16 or 17. The inspectors note the very challenging and vulnerable profile of the boys held including the fact that about 10% of the boys held had been convicted of or charged with murder or manslaughter and faced many years in prison and make clear that managing these young people safely and positively is a real challenge:

Staff required significant skills and experience in working with this age group and needed to know the boys in their care very well. About 25% of the staff were on detached duty and many of them did not know the work, the institution or the boys. Faced with a larger, more challenging population and significant staffing issues, it was not surprising that outcomes for the boys held had deteriorated overall.

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Some positive findings

The inspectors were pleased to find a number of positives and some substantial improvements since the last inspection. Because of its difficulties and challenging population, Cookham Wood is inspected annually:

  • the reception area had improved and boys continued to be well cared for when they first arrived;
  • oversight of safeguarding had now improved, though there were still some weaknesses;
  • staff were now being trained in the new restraint procedure, Minimising and Managing Physical Restraint (MMPR) that emphasised de-escalation techniques;
  • levels of self-harm had fallen since the last inspection;
  • primary health care had improved and health care staffing was more stable;
  • the environment and the regime in the Phoenix Unit which held boys who needed to be segregated for good order and discipline had improved significantly;
  • boys with complex needs were now held in the Cedar Unit which provided good levels of care;
  • when reviewing CCTV footage, inspectors saw examples of officers responding bravely to protect boys from attacks;
  • work on equality and diversity issues had improved, although there was still more to do;
  • for boys who did get access, the overall effectiveness of education, learning and skills was good; and
  • resettlement was the best performing area of the establishment – all boys had training plans which were regularly reviewed, public protection arrangements were sound and practical planning for release was generally well organised.

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But many criticisms

However, the list of substantial criticisms was much longer:

  • 41% of boys said they had felt unsafe at some time compared with 27% at the last inspection;
  • boys reported more negatively about relationships with staff than at the last inspection;
  • the number of violent incidents remained very high and in the six months leading up to March 2015 there had been 61 assaults and 92 fights, some of which were very serious;
  • staff assaults had almost doubled since the last inspection with 21 in the preceding six months, some resulting in serious injury;
  • behaviour management processes were weak and low-level poor behaviour was not promptly challenged and so it escalated, while good behaviour was not publicly recognised so there was little incentive to behave well;
  • the establishment relied heavily on procedural security measures and, as a consequence, movement around the establishment was severely restricted which limited access to education and other activities;
  • pain compliance techniques were used but not all were recorded;
  • discussion with staff often revealed low expectations and inspectors saw staff backing off from dealing with difficult issues;
  • boys had much too little time out of their cells, and staff shortages meant the establishment was running a restricted regime;
  • inspectors found 36% of boys locked in their cells during the core day, some of whom were too frightened to mix with others, some activities were cancelled and other boys had restrictions placed on what they could do because they had to be kept apart from other boys;
  • there were too few opportunities for boys to do paid work in peer mentor or orderly roles and security restrictions restricted the level of vocational training offered; and
  • 41% of boys said they had been in local authority care, but absences in the establishment’s social worker posts meant that liaison with these boys’ home local authority were not fully effective and it was difficult to ensure they had appropriate accommodation when they left.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the report is a sense of an institution at times out of control with bullying left unchallenged:

On one of the wings during our night visit, we witnessed boys shouting very aggressively out of their doors, in effect holding a ‘kangaroo court’ of another boy. This behaviour was not challenged by staff until we insisted they do so.

If this is what happens when the inspectors are on the premises (a fact known to all staff), what is it like the other 355 days of the year?

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A political problem

The Chief Inspector provides a very concise analysis of the problems typified by Cookham Wood:

The welcome fall in the number of children in custody means that those who remain represent a more concentrated mix of very challenging young people, held in a smaller number of establishments that are increasingly unsuitable to meet their needs, and cared for by a staff group beset by shortages and a lack of training for their complex and demanding role. This report makes recommendations about what Cookham Wood could and should do to improve, but a much wider political and policy response is needed if we are to fulfil our responsibilities to care for these, our most damaged children, safely and help them to grow into adults who are valued, not feared.

This makes very clear the scale of the task facing Charlie Taylor, the man charged by Michael Gove with reviewing the Youth Justice system.

 

 

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