Reforms to the prison system for 18- to 21-year-old offenders
have been a casualty of the rising jail population.
Despite repeated calls for more resources targeted at this age
group, and frequent inspection reports highlighting the deficits in
regimes for this “lost generation”, the chief inspector of prisons
still has “major concerns” about these young people.
After her appointment as chief inspector of prisons in 2001, Anne
Owers said improved provision for 18 to 21 year olds would be a
high priority. Now she admits: “It is still an age group where we
have major concerns. The contrast of what is available for 15 to
18s under the juvenile regime and what is available for over-18s is
On a scale of one to five, with one indicating low concern and five
representing grave concern, Owers says that although establishments
vary she doubts any “would be much lower than four”.
A Prisons Inspectorate report published last week into Castington
Young Offenders Institution (YOI) in Northumberland proves the
point. Owers says: “The impoverishment of the regime and [lack of]
opportunities for young adults was all too apparent.”
One-third of young adult prisoners questioned at Castington told
inspectors they were allowed out of their cell for less than two
hours a day. Two-thirds said they had never met a personal officer
and just 20 per cent said they had a sentence plan.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, shares Owers’
concerns. She says that the government made a commitment three
years ago to developing a strategy for effective work with the
8,300 young adults in jail. “The report on Castington belies that
commitment when it reveals that as things have improved for younger
offenders, so regimes have deteriorated badly for older teenagers,”
Chris Stanley, head of youth justice at rehabilitation agency
Nacro, adds: “Conditions for 18 to 21 year olds in custody have
deteriorated in recent years in spite – and perhaps partly because
– of the improvements that have been made for younger inmates.
Attention and resources have simply been diverted away from the
In three recently inspected YOIs, including Castington, an average
18 per cent of 18 to 21 year olds spent less than two hours outside
their cells on a weekday and 25 per cent were locked up for 22
hours or more at weekends. Nearly 90 per cent of 18 to 21 year olds
in the three YOIs said that while in custody they had not been
helped to address their offending behaviour.
Owers says such programmes for young people are absent in the
prison service, but this is not the only missing ingredient to
successful rehabilitation. “Alcohol for many of the young people
going to prisons is as great a driver of their offending as drugs.
There’s not enough throughout the prison service on alcohol
reduction, but there’s a particular need for such programmes for
young people in prison.”
Drug teams try to tackle alcohol issues or refer young people to
Alcoholics Anonymous, but Owers says “something that helps them to
manage alcohol sensibly, such as alcohol awareness courses” is
needed. The Castington report shows that 42 per cent of young adult
offenders thought they would have an alcohol problem when they were
Owers also criticises the drug treatment programmes as not always
appropriate for the age group; they are often developed for adults
rather than young adults.
Nearly two years ago, Owers said resettlement issues, such as
employment and managing finances, were seen as “add-ons” and not a
core activity. The inspection of Castington implies little has
changed. Nearly three-quarters of the young prisoners said help to
find employment on release was not available and about two-thirds
said they received no help arranging accommodation.
Although the prison service now has set a standard on resettlement,
Owers says it is still “very patchy”. She blames a lack of
reliable, permanent core funding.
Bobby Cummines, chief executive of Unlock, the national association
of ex-offenders, warns that “prison is becoming the university of
crime” as rehabilitation receives little attention.
Because there are so few rehabilitation courses, prisoners
sentenced for minor offences meet more prolific offenders and, by
the time they are released, have more knowledge about offending
than when they went in. Not surprisingly, an average 60 per cent of
the young offenders in the three recently inspected YOIs had been
in prison before. In Castington, one-third of those who had been
incarcerated before had been in jail more than five times.
Stanley says that for this age group, about three-quarters of all
those released are reconvicted. He says this group is more
vulnerable than both the juvenile population and adult prisoners as
they are at a transitional time of life, going from “often
difficult and messy childhoods to an adulthood that is far from
being secure or certain”.
Their backgrounds are often chaotic and, according to Robert Lake,
the Association of Directors of Social Services lead on the secure
estate, the number of 18 to 21 year olds in prison who have been in
care is “alarmingly high”.
But, as Stanley points out, for this group of prisoners “any
safeguards offered to them by the youth justice system cease to
come into play. It is little short of scandalous that so little
continues to be done,” he says.
Why is this the case?
Two years ago, Owers blamed a lack of resources and poor
co-ordination between prison and probation services and she says
that resources are still a major issue. In split-site
establishments, funding and staff are pulled over from the young
adult part of the establishment to provide the contracted regime
that the Youth Justice Board requires for the 15 to 18 year
The juvenile money is “quite rightly” ring-fenced, she says, but
this makes it difficult for governors who are doing “the best they
can” with the resources to hand.
In her annual report last December, Owers called for the same
injection of ring-fenced money that had been devoted to the
juvenile estate to be given to 18 to 21 year olds. “I can see
myself repeating the need to focus on this group of people [in this
year’s report],” she says.
As for the links between prison and probation, Owers thinks she has
seen little change in two years.
But she concedes it is too early to see the effects of Martin
Narey’s appointment as commissioner for correctional services
earlier this year, and is aware that he is “keen to get the two
marching together in a better way”.
Although Narey’s appointment signals that the government is keen to
address the issue of links between prison and probation, only time
will tell whether his ambitions improve those vital links between
Owers emphasises that aftercare is “crucial” to preventing
reoffending and that young people need to be picked up “at the
prison gate” and have whatever support they need kick in there and
But the sheer volume of prisoners often results in young offenders
being moved away from their home towns, making it difficult for
local probation services to stay in touch.
The rising prison population has also had other knock-on effects.
Owers acknowledges that the high numbers make it difficult for the
prison service to tackle issues such as education, because even
when new money is put into education and employment places, it is
having to play catch-up with the number of prisoners.
“Everybody’s energy, time and resources are engaged on how to
manage the prison population,” Owers says. “What is happening is
crisis management and that is having a huge effect on attempts to
institute reforms to make changes.”
Lake agrees, saying all that governors can do is “accommodate these
young people rather than do anything practical with them”. The
issue has also forced several “forward-looking discussions”, such
as raising the cut-off point from 21- to 25-year-old offenders, on
to the back burner.
But it is the issue of resources that is paramount to improving the
lot of young adults. Lake is confident that “once the resources are
there, improvements will be brought to bear”. Stanley agrees that
“more focus and better resourcing” will improve conditions.
But a Home Office spokesperson insists that “considerable extra
funds” have already been invested “in improving regimes for young
prisoners and in programmes that will assist [in their]
rehabilitation and resettlement”.
He adds: “These include offending behaviour programmes, drug
treatment programmes, education to improve basic and key work
skills and the custody-to-work initiative, which seeks to increase
the number of prisoners getting jobs or education or training
places after release.”
In 2005-6, core funding for prison education will rise to
£125m from £57m in 2001-2, and “ministers have agreed
that young offenders are an early priority for the additional
In the seven YOIs inspected this year, Owers says that “there still
aren’t anywhere nearly enough resources available”. But some were
using their resources better than others. Owers believes that a
standard should be introduced on what services should be expected
for young adults while inside. She also wants money to be allocated
to prevention programmes and resources directed towards effective
Custody should be used as little as possible and, when necessary,
the experience should be focused on education and training. And
money needs to be injected into aftercare to support young people
after their release.
Owers adds: “I would like to see what was talked about two years
ago: the development of a concept of how prison and probation
services deal with this age group and the development of specific
standards about what is required.”
Although Owers says improvements should not stop at those aged 21,
she warns that “it has to be taken in bite-sized chunks”, starting
with this vulnerable group. She is determined to keep raising the
issue about the neglect of 18- to 21-year-old prisoners until
Sooner or later her advice must be heeded because, as Lyons warns,
“impoverished regimes, long periods locked up, almost no access to
training and skills, limited exercise and little or no help with
resettlement is the surest way to confirm a young person to a life
Castington YOI prisoner survey
- 37 per cent spent 22 hours in their cell at the weekend.
- 66 per cent had not met a personal officer.
- 80 per cent did not have a sentence plan.
- 72 per cent were unable to access help to find employment on
- 42 per cent thought they would have an alcohol problem on
- 96 per cent had not undertaken an offending behaviour