News ID: 235184
Published: 1229 GMT December 03, 2018

UK’s child prisons are beyond reform – it's time to stop jailing young people

UK’s child prisons are beyond reform – it's time to stop jailing young people

By Carolyne Willow*

Jake Hardy was 17 years old when he hanged himself in prison in 2012.

Minutes before, CCTV cameras captured other children crowded around his cell goading him to kill himself, while prison officers watched, reported.

Like so many imprisoned children, Jake had special educational needs and mental health difficulties.

Jake’s mother, Liz, spoke at the recent launch of a new campaign – run by Article 39, the Center for Crime and Justice Studies, the Howard League for Penal Reform, Inquest and the National Association for Youth Justice – pressing for the closure of England’s child prisons.

Most of the 861 children in custodial institutions in England and Wales are detained in young offender institutions (YOI) – 71 percent – and secure training centers (STC) – 18 percent. Around one in 10 are held in a secure children’s home, the only form of custody required by law to have staff with professional childcare qualifications.

Child prisons emanate from a bygone era when there was limited or no understanding of child development, learning disability, the effects of abuse and neglect or childhood bereavement (all disproportionately higher among imprisoned children).

Two of England’s four YOIs were built as industrial schools for children in trouble with the law in the 1850s and 1860s, another first opened as a borstal and the fourth was built as a prison for young men.

Nearly half of child prisoners are from black and minority ethnic (BME) communities, four in 10 are from the care system and half of children in YOIs have the literacy and numeracy skills of primary school pupils. Desperate levels of child suffering combined with terrible outcomes should lead us all to reject imprisonment.

Seven out of 10 children released from prison are known to reoffend within a year. More than a third of young adults who died in prison between 2008 and 2012 had been incarcerated as children.

An independent review reported last year that the Youth Justice Board (YJB) – the organization then charged with placing children in custody – believed YOIs and Secure Training Centers (STC) were “not fit for the purpose of caring for or rehabilitating children.”

It is not that the YJB did not try to reform child prisons. Its 2001 annual report, the first after it took on responsibility for the secure estate, said it was “concentrating on driving up standards and transforming regimes.” The same report announced 30 hours of education and other positive activities a week in all custodial institutions, increasing to 45 hours over the year.

Despite a similar edict in 2014, little change has transpired: children spent less than 14 hours a week in YOI classrooms last year, and ministers say they do not know how much education is given to children in prison segregation.

When they cannot cope with children’s fear, distress and anger, prison officers fall back on methods that have survived the generations not because they work, but because they are the stock tools of their trade – segregation, restraint, pain infliction, gated cells, removal of earned privileges, “awards” (punishments), strip searches and riot gear.

This is not the fault of individual staff, though there is no excuse for gratuitous cruelty and sexual and physical violence. This summer, Childline reported to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse that children had contacted its helpline with 24 separate allegations of sexual abuse by prison staff between 2012 and 2016, including rape by a prison governor.

When prison inspectors asked staff and children what would improve behavior in YOIs, time out of cells was the united reply. Remarkably, one prison officer told the inspectorate that the 20- to 30-minute conversation personal officers are meant to have with children each week, itself a new initiative from 2015, had “just fizzled out.”

The plain truth is that child prisons cannot be reformed. Every few decades the institutions are given new names and promises are made that everything will change, but scandals continue. When the then home secretary, Ken Clarke, defended the legislation introducing STCs in 1993, he ventured that children “will be made to go through the process of education that they need at that age, and they will be trained; but I suspect that many will also receive more care, affection and personal attention than they received in their own homes.”

Within five years of them opening, two children died in appalling circumstances following restraint and the high court declared in 2012 that unlawful restraint had been widespread in all four STCs for at least a decade.

We need a completely new approach to meeting the needs and addressing the behavior of children who cannot live safely in the community. This will require the best of our caring professions. This is not a soft option; it is only through skilled, compassionate help that children can begin to face up to the harm they have caused others (as well as the wrongs done to them). A child languishing in a cell for days or months at a time is ultimately an unchallenged child, though the effects can be catastrophic.

Jake Hardy was one of 34 children to die in prison since 1990. The coroner who conducted the inquest into Jake’s death sent a report to the Ministry of Justice and others setting out the failures of the state to protect his life, including prison officers forgetting to unlock his cell on the night he hanged himself, so he could speak with his mother on the telephone.

Liz explained at the campaign launch: “I didn’t expect them to mollycoddle Jake but if a boy is crying and asking for his mum, why can’t they show empathy and take him into an office and let him ring his mum?”


* Carolyne Willow is a registered social worker and director of Article 39 children’s rights charity.



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