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Surviving incarceration

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Surviving incarceration - the strategies that disadvantaged and vulnerable children develop in order to survive.

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Surviving hostile environments

New research from the Vauxhall Centre for the Study of Crime finds that children in care who were sentenced to custody develop a “survivor mentality”.  It estimates that children in care who come into contact with the justice system are seven times more likely to be imprisoned than their peers who are not in care. The study looked at the experiences of children sentenced to custody in South and West Yorkshire between 2014 and 2018.

The research, by Anne-Marie day, Tim Bateman and John Pitts, found that pathways into, through and out of custody, can be understood in terms of strategies that disadvantaged and vulnerable children develop in order to survive hostile environments.

While all those sentenced to custody shared characteristics that included extremely troubled backgrounds, there were differences between children in care and those who were not.

The additional challenges encountered by the former group exacerbated the risk that they would become entangled in the youth justice system and, when sentenced to custody, would experience deprivation of liberty and resettlement as more disruptive.

These differences also impacted on identities in important ways. All children exhibited strategies for survival at each stage of their journey, but a focus on surviving tended to become an integral part of the identity of children in care.

The perceived need for these children to be self-reliant because of what they understood to be a lack of adequate support from adults, meant that they were also more likely than other children to develop, what we term, a ‘survivor mentality’ that made it harder for them to focus on future ambitions for positive achievement and to leave their offending behind them.

Reunited on release from prison
© Andy Aitchison

Surviving life before custody

The researchers found that the pathway to custody was, for most children, associated with spending considerable periods out of education and away from home. The adoption of a ‘street lifestyle’ frequently involved forms of ‘survival’ behaviour – such as robbery, or fighting to maintain status – that brought them into contact with the criminal justice system and an enhanced risk of custody. Aspects of the care experience made it more likely that looked-after children would make their way onto the streets, particularly for those placed in residential provision a long way from home, often against their expressed wishes. Becoming increasingly detached from those responsible for their care, and spending more time in the company of peers on the street, encouraged a perception among such children that they could not rely on others.

Surviving custody

Most children, particularly those in YOIs, had a negative experience of custody which they regarded as an episode to be endured. Contact with families and friends was restricted and children complained about what they saw as the excessive use of isolation, often involving confinement to their cells for much of the day. Children in care felt particularly isolated because a lack of familial support, confirming a perception that being looked-after set them apart from other children. They adopted a distinct strategy for surviving custody, fighting to maintain status and avoid victimisation, rather than keeping their head down. This preference, a reflection of a survivor identity, led to increased restraint and segregation.

Surviving resettlement

The transition from custody to the community provided a window of opportunity for positive change for some children, but was challenging to most. The challenge was greatest where settled accommodation or family support was lacking, factors more likely to impact children in care, thereby increasing the risk of a resumption of a ‘street lifestyle’, punctuated by further brushes with the law. Prevailing concerns over where they would live made it considerably more difficult for many looked-after children to reflect on how they might construct a positive future for themselves or take advantage of practical or emotional support offered by professionals, which are prerequisites of effective resettlement.

The importance of identity

The behaviour of most children could be seen as a response to surviving the environments in which they found themselves, but survival took on a particular resonance for children in care, who felt that they had to be self-reliant because they had less support and fewer people who cared about them. If all children sometimes engaged in ‘doing survival’, looked-after children were more likely to manifest a ‘survivor mentality’ in which relying on one’s own resources, became part of their identity.


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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