A prisons watchdog has warned that poor conditions are “endemic” at four young offender institutions in England and urged ministers to take urgent action to improve them.
In her new role as the national chair of the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs), Elisabeth Davies has taken the unusual step of writing a letter to the prisons minister, Damian Hinds, to raise serious concerns about the welfare of children in YOIs in England.
While concerns have previously been expressed, Davies wrote in her letter to Hinds: “These concerns have now considerably heightened and appear to be endemic across all YOIs in England.”
Davies outlined a series of concerns in her letter to the minister, including the use of “keep aparts” to prevent children and young people who are in conflict with each other, either due to rival gang affiliations or a range of other issues, from mingling freely.
Children reported feeling scared for their safety in YOIs and some resorted to carrying homemade weapons. Some were locked in their rooms for up to 23 hours a day due to staff shortages and keep aparts, although the duration of such confinement varied at different times and in different YOIs.
At times, children were denied access to education or “purposeful activity” due to staff shortages.
At Wetherby YOI in Yorkshire, children were out of their rooms for three to five hours a day, but this was reduced to two to three hours for the whole weekend period. The practice of keeping some children in their rooms for very long periods each day was described as “positively inhumane”.
Children with complex needs, such as those with histories of trauma or those who are neurodiverse, are not accessing the support they need, according to Davies’ letter to the minister. “A notable proportion of children and young people felt constantly afraid and unsafe and unprotected,” the letter states.
“Children and young people said they felt the establishment they were in was out of control and they needed to protect themselves either by self-isolating or carrying weapons because they feared attack.”
In some YOIs, children were seriously injured in assaults. At Wetherby, enhanced support team meetings were poorly attended by operational staff and there was frequently no one present to report on progress made by the young person who was the subject of the meeting.
“In addition, there were often no staff members available to escort the young person in question to the meeting,” the letter states.
In one month alone, the IMB at Wetherby received 51 written representations from children regarding the negative impact that restrictions were having on their mental and physical health.
Davies said: “There have always been children with profound needs in the custodial estate. Often they can present a high risk to themselves and others. Attempting to manage poor behaviour through restricting regimes, increased use of force and keeping children apart fails to address violence and poor behaviour in the long term.
“If more focus was placed on providing structured and fuller regimes, cycles of violence and poor behaviour would be reduced and outcomes for children improved.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The number of children in custody has fallen by 77% in the last decade as we have worked to divert children from custody and crime.
“Improving the safety, welfare and life chances of the small number of challenging and vulnerable young people who are in custody is a top priority and work is already underway to address the concerns in this letter.”
(Source: The Guardian)