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Prison inspectors find prisons fail to deal effectively with young adult prisoners, missing opportunities to help them rehabilitate.

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Concerns about outcomes

The Prison Service has failed for more than a decade to deal effectively with young adult prisoners, missing opportunities to help them rehabilitate and putting communities at risk from reoffending, according to HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in a report published today. Charlie Taylor warned that outcomes would remain poor for young adults under 25 and for society unless HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) urgently addressed the current “haphazard” approach to more than 15,000 young adult prisoners.

The report, “Outcomes for young adults in custody” concludes that HMPPS places most young adults in adult prisons without any coherent strategy and with little understanding of the way young men in their early 20s mature.

Headline findings

In general, the outcomes are poor for young adults when compared with those for older prisoners (those aged over 25). Young adults have worse relationships with staff, are less likely to be motivated by the behaviour management schemes and are far more likely to be involved in violent incidents. They are also more likely to face adjudications, to be placed on the basic regime and to self-harm. They report more negatively on day-to-day life, including relationships with staff, the quality of the food and the cleanliness of their wing. In addition, young adults have worse attendance at education and work. Black and minority ethnic prisoners are significantly over-represented in the young adult prison population, and the perceptions of treatment among this group are particularly poor.

Some of these factors are similar to those present in young adults’ lives when they committed their offences. Custody should be an opportunity to provide them with structure, meaningful activity and opportunities to address their offending behaviour. This is key to meeting Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service’s aim to help prisoners lead law-abiding and useful lives while in custody and on release. However, in HMI Prisons’ prisoner surveys less than half of young adults (46%) reported that their experience in their current prison had made them less likely to offend in the future. This missed opportunity to help young adult prisoners to improve their skills and reduce reoffending rates has consequences for society when they are released.

Inspectors found that instead of providing this group with the tailored support, structure and consistency they need, there is a lack of a coherent response at the national level. There is no explanation for the current configuration of the estate, with only three dedicated young adult establishments for a population of over 15,000, no rationale for placing the majority of young adults in establishments that predominantly hold older prisoners, and no evidence that placement decisions are made on the basis of need.

The absence of any planning at a national level for this group has led to a reduction of services for young adults and most receive no specific provision at all. Without a national strategy, the aspiration for specific service provision is too low – provision at the few sites attempting to meet the needs of young adults depends mainly on the enthusiasm of committed individuals. National support for these managers is limited to information-sharing forums and the development of a one-to-one intervention to address maturity. The one tailored intervention available, the Choices and Changes programme, has been accessed by just 2% of those assessed as needing it.

Going forwards

The inspectors argue that there is substantial evidence, both in the over-representation of this group in negative aspects of prison life and in their substantially different perceptions of treatment and conditions, that a different approach is needed. The inspectors cite HMP/YOI Hydebank Wood in Northern Ireland as evidence that when there is specific, properly resourced young adult provision, perceptions of and outcomes for young adults improve. Many more young adults in Northern Ireland than their counterparts in England report that they are encouraged to attend education, helped to achieve targets in their sentence plan and have undertaken one-to-one work to support their progression.

However, despite the evidence presented by HMI Prisons, the Harris Review and the Justice Select Committee, practice in England and Wales has moved in the opposite direction. We have found, for nearly all young adults, that there is no difference between how they and adult prisoners are treated in custody, and that no additional thought is put into the type of establishment in which they are held.

As managers plan for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, inspectors claim that there is both an opportunity and an urgent need for Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service to develop specific policies and services for this group. At the core of any future strategy is the principle that young adults need to be properly assessed and placed in an establishment that can meet their needs.


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

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One Response

  1. This presents a major issue for penal systems because in the majority, once a young person has surpassed their eighteenth birthday, they are legally tried as an adult.

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