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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

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

We imprison children too far from home

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One of the side-effects of imprisoning fewer children is that more are kept further from home making it difficult for families to visit regularly.

Family ties affected

A recent (27 September 2016) report from HM Inspectorate of Prisons: The impact of distance from home on children in custody found that placing children in custody miles away from their home affected how many family visits they received. The report however, also said that this separation didn’t, however, appear to have a significant impact on other experiences of custody and could help some boys keep away from gang influence.

Context

Over the past decade, the number of children in young offender institutions (YOIs) and secure training centres (STCs) has fallen by over two-thirds, from 2,467 in April 2005 to 802 in April 2016 (not including 106 18-year-olds in youth custody). There has been a similar reduction in the number of secure settings in which children can be detained. There are now five young offender institutions and three secure training centres. Inevitably, this has meant some children have been held further from home than might have been the case some years ago. For some children, going into custody will be the first time they have been away from the familial home. For others, it will be the latest in a series of placements in foster care and children’s homes.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ 2014 report on resettlement provision for adult prisoners highlighted the central importance of an offender’s family to their successful rehabilitation. Dame Sally Coates made a similar point in her recently published review of education in prisons. Human rights standards emphasise the importance of children in detention being able to communicate with the outside world and to receive visits.

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Findings

This is a comprehensive report which  draws on interviews with 24 children and 22 staff  at two young offender institutions (YOIs) and one secure training centre (STC), and data provided by those establishments. It also uses data from surveys conducted at four YOIs holding 15–18-year-olds and two STCs (N=595) — which is the source for how far children are held from their home — and recall data provided by the YJB (N=1,343).

Inspectors found that:

  • one child was 187 miles from home and had not received a family visit in four months following his transfer from a young offender institution closer to home;
  • children and staff said distance made it harder for family and carers to visit and maintain their relationships;
  • each 25-mile interval that a child was held from home was associated with one less visit from a family member or friend;
  • visits from community-based professionals involved in a child’s care reduced the further a child was placed from home;
  • each 26-mile interval that a child was held from home was associated with one fewer visit from a professional, which could impact on a child’s resettlement after release;
  • distance from home had no bearing on the likelihood of being recalled to custody after release;
  • nearly half of children had at some point felt unsafe in the YOI or STC, irrespective of the distance they were from home;
  • arriving late at the YOI/STC, which can make it more difficult for a child to settle on their first night in custody, was not uncommon and could be exacerbated by the distances some children had to travel; and
  • some boys in YOIs detained close to home reported more gang problems when they first arrived at their YOI than those who were far from home.

Conclusion

However, given some of the distances involved, inspectors were pleased to find that distance from home did not significantly impact on the experiences of children in many areas of custodial life. Children themselves did not raise many concerns other than the impact on receiving visits from people they cared about. Inspectors did not find evidence of differential treatment of those children who were far from home and the involvement of youth offending teams in sentence planning and remand management reviews with children was unaffected by distance.

Chief Inspector Peter Clarke concluded:

It was reassuring to find that being placed in custody far from home was not a disadvantage to children in many respects. The negative impact on family ties and the implications this has for successful resettlement and turning children away from crime cannot, though, be ignored.

 

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