Changing jail culture

For the first time social workers are being directly funded to work
in young offenders institutions, potentially a seminal moment in
the care and treatment of young people under 18 who are given
custodial sentences. It is not the whole answer: further reform of
sentencing policy, both in principle and in practice, is still
required. Despite the prison service’s ostensible mission to turn
its inmates into law-abiding citizens, reoffending rates among
young offenders remain high, thanks largely to overcrowding and a
failure to provide the full range of opportunities for

But the Young Justice Board’s announcement of funding for social
workers in YOIs could help to change a prison service culture
where, despite pockets of good practice, the focus is all too often
on detention to the exclusion of all else. An important milestone
was Mr Justice Munby’s 2002 high court judgement that the Home
Office had been wrong to deny that the Children Act 1989 applied in
YOIs. In other respects, he said, policy on the treatment of
juveniles complied with human rights obligations, though there was
cause for “serious concern” whether that policy was actually being
implemented throughout the prison service.

In an interview with Community Care last week, new YJB
chair Rod Morgan admitted that conditions in some YOIs remained
“unacceptable”. While the YJB has emerged as an undoubted champion
of young offenders in custody, it has not always received a
sympathetic hearing in its host department, the Home Office, or for
that matter in the prison service. One of the most intractable
problems has been achieving consistency across the juvenile estate,
bringing the standards of the worst up to those of the best. But
this will require stronger leadership and greater resolve within
the prison service than has been evident so far.

It is against this background that penal reform campaigners have
expressed reservations about the new money for social workers. More
social workers are all very well, but will they get the support
they need from their employing social services departments to make
a difference?

And what about 18 to 20 year olds, who fall outside the remit of
the YJB and for whom the outlook remains bleak?

The Munby judgement, and the Howard League for Penal Reform, which
brought the case, allowed Children Act principles to play a role in
prison life. Social workers are another indispensable part of the
jigsaw. But it will take a great deal more time and effort before
the jigsaw is complete.

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