‘Not a single establishment’ in prison estate safe to hold young people
There is ‘not a single establishment’ exists in which it is ‘safe to hold children and young people’, according to a devastating annual report by the government’s chief inspector of prisons which details a dangerous and dilipidated estate where staff are unsafe and increasing amounts of prisoners take their own lives. Piers Barber reports
Writing his second annual report as head of the inspectorate, Peter Clarke warned that the ‘speed of decline’ in youth offender institutes (YOIs) and secure training centres (STCs) had been ‘staggering’. Self-harm rates for children have more than doubled from 8.9 incidents per 100 children, compared to 4.1 in 2011. Almost half of boys felt unsafe, with assault rates increasing from 9.7 per 100 children in 2011 to 18.9 today. Clarke describes a ‘vicious circle’, with violence leading to a harmfully restricted regime which has seen the proportion of boys in work, vocational training and behaviour programmes fall to their lowest level since 2010-11.
Clarke, a former head of counter-terrorism at the Metropolitan police, privately raised issues concerning the youth estate to ministers following last year’s revelations surrounding the mistreatment of children at Medway Secure Training Centre. In February, the government announced a new Youth Custody Service to manage the operational running of the children and young people’s estate. While the impact of these changes remain to be seen, Clarke warns that ‘the current state of affairs is dangerous, counterproductive and will inevitably end in tragedy unless urgent corrective action is taken’.
The situation is also deteriorating dramatically within the adult estate, with the percentage of male prisons deemed to be ‘good’ or ‘reasonably good’ falling from 78% to 49%. Escalating violence has seen assaults against staff rise to 6,844 incidents – an increase of 38% in the 12 months to December 2016. Of these incidents, 789 were classed as serious. There were over 26,000 assaults in total, an increase of 27%, while 21 out of 29 local and training prisons were rated as ‘poor’ or ‘not sufficiently good’ in terms of safety. Young adult prisons are the most violent in the estate.
Self-harm and self-inflicted deaths have also increased, with 113 prisoners taking their own lives in the 12 months to March 2017 – twice the amount seen in 2013. Prisons are overcrowded, in crumbling condition, and housing inmates who lack sufficient purposeful activity. Of those aged 18 to 21 in adult institutions, 30% spent less than two hours a day outside of their cells.
The prevalence of drugs – and the accompanying debt, violence, bullying and self-isolation they bring – is identified as a key reason for the deteriorating conditions behind bars. Staffing levels are also at a worrying low, to the extent that stretched employees are unable to both maintain order and run an effective and productive regime. Clarke warns that real reform will not be possible until these issues are resolved, a process which he points out was not helped by the abandonment of the Prisons and Courts Bill in April 2017.
Female prisons performed better than their male equivalents in terms of safety, respect and resettlement. However, women in prison self-harm five times more than men, while despite their decreasing numbers, more took their own lives while in prison than in any year since 2004.
Responding to the report, Ali Wigzell, the chair of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, said: ‘As a matter of urgency, the government must implement its plans to increase resources in YOIs. Alongside, we urge the government to keep true to its endorsement of the Taylor Review’s vision of abolishing YOIs and STCs and publish its timetable for doing so immediately. A comprehensive plan for secure schools must now also be outlined, which learns the lessons from reports of existing institutions, particularly that YOIs and STCs are simply too large to hold children safely.’
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said that the Chief Inspector of Prisons could ‘not put it any more clearly—political rhetoric on prison reform counts for nothing when so many prisons lack the most basic elements of a civilised way of life for either prisoners or staff. A dramatic reduction in staffing numbers prompted this crisis, but its solution lies in a similarly dramatic change in the way we use prison.’
He added: ‘Ending the use of pointless short sentences and needless recalls would ease pressure quickly on the worst affected prisons. But a timetabled plan to end overcrowding, reserving prison to only the most serious offences, and for periods that punish without destroying hope, is essential to achieving a permanent improvement in the longer term.’
This article was published on July 20, 2017
Piers is presently working for a charity which promotes children's rights. He was online editor at Not Shut Up, a magazine celebrating prisoner creativity