Youth pay the price for adult failings

It is breathtaking that we should even need Mr Justice Munby’s
judgment that the Children Act 1989 applies to children in prison
service establishments. It is a disgrace that a government which
constantly mouths, “modernisation” with all the fervour of a Hare
Krishna convert, has so far shown no inclination to tackle the mess
that passes for the management of the young in our penal

Writing in The Observer, David Ramsbotham, the former chief
inspector of prisons, states what should be the obvious: prison is
no place for children. If government insists, then the prison
service has to adapt its core business to cope adequately.

So far, with honourable and stunning exceptions, it has failed
miserably. Ramsbotham is pessimistic about the likelihood of
radical improvement. At present, for instance, an operational
manager is responsible for policy in establishments that contain
children but not for institutions where there is a mix of children
and young offenders.

Ramsbotham argues that governors of young offenders institutions
should act in loco parentis, responsible for the application of the
Children Act. Each institution should have a social service manager
who consults every young person’s social worker about risk
assessment, needs and sentence planning and to organise continuity
of support on release, as with detention and training orders.

A report published by the Prison Reform Trust in the summer said
that the five prisons with the highest levels of recorded assaults
were all young offender or juvenile institutions.

Lord Warner, chairperson of the Youth Justice Board, dismissed the
figures as “inaccurate”, claiming that “assault” is defined too
loosely – for instance, to include pushing. He wants assault to be
recorded, on the Scottish model, only if it is “worse than a black

What kind of madness is this? Shoving, even verbal abuse where no
punch is thrown, all indicate a climate of violence and
intimidation which contributes to the appalling suicide rate and
inhibits the opportunity for real change in a young person’s

What will make a difference? Probably, high-profile cases using the
Human Rights Act 1998, forcing reluctant and therefore
unsustainable change, at a far greater human and financial cost
than necessary.

David Blunkett’s lock’em up and leave’em fever is a manifestation
of a deeper malaise: a fear and hatred of any child whose behaviour
reflects the failings of the adult community.

Nothing modern in that view, just re-read Dickens.

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