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A bleak picture of youth custody
Children in custody suffer big rises in violence and self-harm.

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Youth custody struggles to recover from pandemic

Two reports published yesterday (21 November 2023) paint a bleak picture of youth custody in England and Wales. While the number of children in custody continued to fall in 2022-23, levels of violence and self-harm rose by just over a quarter and a third respectively.

Children in custody 2022-23 analysed survey data from inspections of five Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) and one Secure Training Centre (STC) published between April 2022 – March 2023. In addition to the levels of violence, the report also found that children continued to spend far too long alone in their cells, with 28% of those with less than two hours unlocked each day doing absolutely nothing with their time in custody. In this context it is unsurprising that less than half of children reported feeling cared for by staff, and nearly a third did not have a single member of staff they trusted to help them if they had a problem.

Almost all of the themes identified were also apparent in a report from an inspection of Werrington YOI, completed in August 2023, and also published yesterday. This found that serious disorder had increased by 76% since the last inspection, only a year earlier, with multiple incidents requiring the deployment of national resources. This included groups of boys trying to smash through doors to get to other children. Inspectors saw a classroom that could not be used with a damaged door and shards of broken glass following one such incident.

Children in custody survey

The number of children held in Secure Training Centres and YOIs has continued to decline, although the fall in 2022–23 is less pronounced than in previous years. The average population of children and young people held in both types of establishment (which includes some who are over 18) was 434 in 2022–23, compared with 939 in 2015–16. This meant that all sites were continuing to operate at well below capacity. The low population had the effect of improving staff-to-child ratios in all settings. The report focuses on three main themes:

  1. the children held and their experiences in custody
  2. their perceptions of care and the links to behaviour management in custody
  3. how the youth estate is recovering from the pandemic.

The children in custody

Children in custody tend to be male (98%), are more likely than children in the general population to be from ethnic groups other than white (55%), and are much more likely to have been in local authority care (66%). A large proportion report that they have health problems and 12% report having children of their own.

Almost two thirds (65%) of children in custody had been sentenced for a violence against the person offence – this compares to just 33% in 2015–16. Children in custody were more likely to be there on remand than any other legal basis (42% in 2022–23). They continued to be placed too far from their homes, separated from support that friends and family can offer: 39% were placed 50 or more miles from their home in 2022–23.

Violence

There was an overall rise in the rate of assault incidents involving children and young people in STCs and YOIs of 28% (from 311 assaults per 100 children in 2020–21 to 399 in 2021–22). This differed by establishment type:
− YOIs had lower assault rates than STCs, but saw a 30% increase to 297 assaults per 100 children in the last year, from 229 in 2020–21
− STCs had higher assault rates than YOIs with an assault rate of 1,214 per 100 children in 2021–22.

The rate of self-harm continued to increase, by 37% in the last year to 250 self-harm incidents per 100 children in 2021–22. Again, this varied by establishment type, with STCs also having higher self-harm rates than YOIs (770 incidents per 100 children in 2021–22 compared with 185 in YOIs).

Fewer children feel cared for

After an improvement in relationships between staff and children in 2021–22, the current surveys found that there was a significant reduction this year in the number of children who reported feeling cared for by staff. Just 46% of children said they felt cared for and only 68% reported that there was a member of staff they could turn to for help.

Worryingly, the main reason for prisons offering poor regimes – chronic understaffing – does not apply in the youth estate where all sites continue to operate at well below capacity enabling much improved staff-to-child ratios.

Behaviour management

Improving behaviour management has been a key problem in YOIs over the previous five years. High levels of violence and a reliance on keeping children apart to reduce conflict has prevented access to education, health care and offending behaviour interventions for many children.

When inspectors compared the perceptions of children who felt cared for with those who did not, the link to behaviour management is stark. Children who did not feel cared for by staff were less likely to report that incentives for good behaviour were fair or encouraged them to behave well. They were also much less likely to report that staff let them know when their behaviour was good or explained what they had done wrong. Most worrying of all, these children were also more likely to have experienced restraint and been separated from other children as a punishment.

Recovery from the pandemic

With the pandemic restrictions having been lifted for some time, inspectors naturally expected children to be spending more time out of their cells. This was not the case. At two sites (Wetherby and Werrington YOIs) there had been no meaningful progress and there had been insufficient progress at Cookham Wood YOI. Only Feltham YOI had made reasonable progress in this area.

Overall, 78% of children reported spending more than two hours out of their cell on weekdays and just 38% said this was the case at the weekend. However, there was substantial variation between the sites.

While nearly all children at Parc YOI and Oakhill STC reported spending two hours or more out of their cell each day, the situation was much worse at other sites, particularly at the weekend, when the overwhelming majority of children spent more than 22 hours a day locked in their cells.

Conclusion

Chief Inspector Charlie Taylor used this report to make a plea to the government not to introduced pava spray to tackle the very high levels of violence:

“Our report shows how poor trust already is between staff and children, and our inspections continue to find an absence of the basic activities that should improve both trust and behaviour which would be far more productive and serve public protection far better over time. The idea of adding something as drastic as pava into the mix, which risks increasing rather than reduce hostility, is a very worrying step in the wrong direction.”

 

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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