In March 2002, 16 year old Joseph Hall was sent to Stoke Heath Young Offender Institution (YOI). He was particularly vulnerable and all the pre-sentencing reports made this very clear. On arrival, because staff had been made aware of his vulnerability, Joseph was placed in a cell under intense observation. Joseph repeatedly told staff that he would kill himself if he was moved to a normal location in the YOI. Nevertheless, staff proceeded with an incremental transition to the main YOI by moving him into a cell in the health care centre where he was less intensely observed.

Nine days after arriving at Stoke Heath, Joseph made a noose from a bed-sheet and hung himself from the bars of his cell. His body was discovered by a maintenance worker who had been called to the health care centre to unblock toilets. Joseph left a message for his mother and father telling them he couldn’t cope and that ‘I tried telling them and they just don’t fucking listen.’

Why do children die in custody?

Back in 2012, the Prison Reform Trust produced a report, ‘Fatally Flawed’, looking at the deaths of young people in UK custody between 2003 and 2010 and reached the following conclusions about the deaths.  They found the children who had died:

• Were some of the most disadvantaged in society and had experienced problems with mental health, self-harm, alcohol and/or drugs;
• Had significant interaction with community agencies before entering prison yet in many cases there were failures in communication and information exchange between prisons and those agencies;
• Despite their vulnerability, they had not been diverted out of the criminal justice system at an early stage and had ended up remanded or sentenced to prison;
• Were placed in prisons with unsafe environments and cells experienced poor medical care and limited access to therapeutic services in prison;
• Had been exposed to bullying and treatment such as segregation and restraint;
• Were failed by the systems set up to safeguard them from harm;

No progress in 2017

In 2017 the reality is that no progress has been made and we are still putting these vulnerable children into places where they are likely to suffer either self-harm or violence from fellow inmates.  The February 2017 report on YOI’s by the Youth Custody Board is damning, stating they are “on the edge of coping with the young people they are charged with holding”.  The conclusions are shocking:  “In summary these reports show a clear deterioration in the quality of provision, a demoralised staff group, insufficiently good leadership and an increase in violence” 

A case known to me in 2017

In my last blog about the scandal of magistrates ignoring advice from professional Youth Offending Teams (YOT’s) and sending young people to prison unnecessarily, I talked about the case of LL, a 16 year old boy who is known to me, and who earlier this year was unexpectedly sentenced to eight months in a YOI.

LL was sentenced on a Friday morning and taken straight down to the cells. Once there he had to wait for prison transport to take him to a YOI during which time the duty worker from the YOT gave him some options and asked which one he wanted to go to. Having no idea even where any were in the country – why would he – he chose a place called Cookham Wood and then sat down to contemplate how he would be able to get through the following months.

In the meantime, his desperate parents tried to see him. They weren’t allowed, it was only the YOT or his solicitor who could see him in the cells. Luckily, his solicitor had £40 which he was able to give to him and he said he knew an inmate in the YOI who would be able to offer him some degree of protection, although nothing could be guaranteed. How would this make you feel as a parent?  The parents were informed that the administration of Cookham Wood was closed for the weekend so they were advised by the YOT to call on Monday morning, to clarify the position with money, visits, education and other aspects of the regime.  Desperately worried they returned home.

Later that evening the phone rang at LL’s house and his mum rushed to answer the phone. In the five minute call allowed, she was told by a tearful LL that he was in the Welcome Wing, where he would stay for one week. He had been given a medical check-up and was now in a cell, terrified of the shouting of strangers around him and what the morning might bring.

23 hours a day in a cell

Over that first weekend there were staff shortages which meant that LL was locked in his cell for over 23 hours a day. This is standard. Last year’s Inspectorate report on Wetherby YOI found that “the core day was not designed to meet the needs of the population. Time out of cell was inconsistent and unpredictable, and there were frequent cancellations and regime restrictions. Exercise was limited to 30 minutes each day, weather permitting”. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

First thing on Monday morning LL’s Dad called Cookham Wood. On expressing his fears for his sons safety to the in-house team of support workers, the first question he was asked was, ‘What gang does your son belong to?’   When he responded that his son wasn’t in a gang the less than reassuring response was, ‘in that case there is a good chance they may leave him alone’.

Staggering bureaucracy

Red tape prevents anything from happening quickly.  Packages to LL had to be sent by post and could take over a week to reach him, “we only deal with them on a Saturday”. Even when on a visit, a package can’t just be handed in to the main office, but it has to go be sent via the postal system.  This isn’t cheap and not everyone is able to afford to do this.  The convenient ‘email a prisoner’ programme wasn’t available at Cookham Wood, instead letters had to be sent by post – do you recall the last time you physically posted a letter? When asked why the email system wasn’t in place the response was a flat,”‘because it isn’t”, no attempt to explain or look into a system that would help inmates by allowing them to receive more post and contact with the outside world.

Then there were the visits. On trying to arrange a visit for that first week the family were told this wasn’t possible as they had to book the visit by the preceding Friday? How were they supposed to know this? Why weren’t they told? On arriving for their first visit, one member of the family hadn’t taken any ID (she wasn’t told to do so) but the institution would not make any allowances, despite a 6 hour round trip and they weren’t allowed in.  Just left at the door in tears.  When questioned further on why this was, it was again blamed on gangs infiltrating the visiting system.  I fail to understand this.  Where is the flexibility and understanding? Why aren’t visitors offered anything resembling just average customer service?

The choice:  boredom Vs relative safety

After a few days, LL was given a choice. Did he stay in the relatively safe Welcome Wing  where he was locked up for 23 hours a day, every day? Or did he risk going to one of the wings where violence was an everyday occurrence, but he may get access to the education these institutions are supposed to provide? His parents advised him to stay where he was to keep safe, but he was bored and eight months of being locked in a cell for 23 hours a day when just 16 isn’t appealing. What a choice – blow any chance of passing your GCSE’s by staying relatively safe or take your chance in the gang infested culture of the wings.

To me, this is the absolute crux of the issue. When we send our young people to a YOI their primary concern isn’t about reforming their behaviour or immersing themselves in education to help them on their release. They can’t do this unless the very basics are in place and they feel safe. Another recent report by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, found a record amount of young people in YOIs – 46 per cent – felt unsafe.    LL witnessed daily violence, even on the Welcome Wing, but what could he do? If he told the prison officers, he was likely to become a target for future violence as staff will not always be there to protect him.  The situation is so out of control that a decent proportion of the staff are equally terrified of some of the inmates.

Extreme violence

Levels of violence have increased yearly and YOI Brinsford recorded the most assaults in any YOI in the country in 2015 with a staggering 276 attacks on either staff or inmates over that year. And they are just the attacks that are reported.  One of the reasons for this is chronic staff shortages. The recent reforms to Youth Justice announced in February this year include recruiting specialist staff  who will be trained to work with young people. But as expert in the area Rob Allen says in his analysis of the announcement, “ they will need to be incentivised to stay in the sector. Historically, the prison service has not sufficiently recognised or rewarded work with young people despite its challenges and the skills required to do it well”.

The recent Taylor report is a glimmer of hope, with a promise of up to £20million in funding for this area. In his report he states that “Education, health and offender desistance programmes need to be at the heart of work to rehabilitate children”.

Government response to the issues

Responding to the Taylor Review the Justice Minister, Liz Truss, said that the government would:

• Launch two secure schools—alongside new measures to monitor progress in English and maths, health and behaviour;
• Spend an additional £15 million to boost frontline staff working in youth custody and improve safety;
• Establish a new post of Head of Operations to reduce violence and drive up standards, and create roles of dedicated officers responsible for overseeing young offenders’ progress;
• Bid to have every young person in custody on an apprenticeship pathway that will continue even after they have left custody.

So, despite the desperate current situation there is hope.  The Government response has been broadly welcomed by  organisations such as the Prison Reform Trust, although they urge the Government to reconsider other proposals put forward by Taylor to further reduce the number of children in custody, with custody only being an absolute ‘last resort’.

Stop putting our children in prison

Returning to the case of LL, the real issue is that he should never have been sent to custody. The YOT recommendation that he was best kept in the community was ignored by the Magistrate – and this action means that there are less resources available for those who have been placed at a YOI as it is a very last resort.

My concern is that these reforms we have discussed in this blog are both too little too late and what we are left with will take too long to be implemented.  This is an urgent situation and we need to move quickly, as this year already, children have taken their lives in YOI’s.  As a first step, from today tell the often out of touch magistrates to stop sending children into custody.

Until we stop sending too many children to YOI’s not fit for purpose, how many more of our children are going to die or suffer serious lifelong damage from their time in custody?

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