Locked up and let down

John Rea Price has worked as a probation
officer, child care officer and was social services director at the
London Borough of Islington, before becoming director of the
National Children’s Bureau. He joined HM Inspectorate of Prisons in
1999 as a specialist inspector for children. He retired from this
post in April 2005.

“Prison is no place for children,” Sir William Utting said in his
scathing review of Britain’s residential care in July 1997.(1) And
the fact they were there was a serious failure of public policy, he

Just four months later, former chief inspector of prisons Sir David
Ramsbotham said: “The prison service is essentially an organisation
neither structured nor equipped to deal with children.” Both were
addressing a newly elected government committed to reform against
the backdrop of a rise in the number of 15 to 17 year olds in
prison from 1,675 to nearly 2,500 between 1995 and 1997.

By 2002 the figure had risen to 2,700, just as the first review by
the national inspectorates of progress on the Utting agenda
recorded extreme weakness in child protection in young offender
institutions and the lamentable support from the local agencies
whose responsibility this was.(2)

“Young people in YOIs still face the gravest risk to their welfare,
and this includes children who experience the greatest harm from
bullying, intimidation and self-harming behaviour,” it

Three years on, with the publication this week of Safeguarding
, the second triennial review by the inspectorates,
the number of detainees in YOIs remains around 2,500.(3) The
progress it reports is largely of future intentions, with a
safeguarding action plan generated and a new strategy for the
secure estate under consultation by the Youth Justice Board.

However, the essential deficiencies remain. “Much has to be done to
produce detailed guidance on specific areas of safeguarding such as
bullying, behaviour management and the care of the very
vulnerable,” the review states.

Indeed. Barely a month ago the Prisons Inspectorate published the
results of its survey, indicating one-third of children felt
unsafe. In some YOIs, 40 per cent said they had been victimised by
other young people.(4)

As rehabilitation agency Nacro has pointed out, we incarcerate more
children in England and Wales than other western European
countries, despite a level of juvenile crime that fell to one of
the lowest in Europe between 1997 and 2001. Why we tolerate this
perplexes international commentators, most recently the European
Commissioner on Human Rights. Understandably, they wonder why,
despite five years for the YJB to develop community alternatives,
the nation has more children in prison than ever.

The commissioner said: “The overall impression I obtained was of a
detention system that placed too much emphasis on punishment and
control and not enough on rehabilitation. One can conclude that the
prison service is failing in its duty of care towards juvenile

To this he might also have included the YJB, to which the prison
service is wedded, or rather welded, in a reluctant and often
rancorous relationship in which neither has exclusive
responsibility and in which it is too easy to point the finger at
each other.

It would have been difficult to design a more dysfunctional
structure for the effective care of children. Many of the obstacles
to improvement are rooted in public policy, such as the unfettered
power of the courts to commit children into an already overcrowded
prison system or the expectation that it should attempt to care for
significant numbers of sick, disturbed, distressed children for
which it is manifestly ill-equipped. Eight years since Utting,
prison is still used as a penal dustbin for children; indeed, even
more so.

For all this, it is reasonable to ask why the YJB and the prison
service have not come together to confront major issues of public
policy more robustly or why, on matters over which they do have
control, change is so stubbornly resisted. Inspection reports have
repeatedly pointed to the impossible task facing four – sometimes
just three – staff overseeing 60 volatile adolescents milling
around inside one residential unit.

The most significant contribution to improvements in safety would
be to limit the size of units to 40. This would still be vastly
bigger than those alternative placements available to the YJB in
secure training centres or homes where places can cost nearly
£200,000 as against £50,000 for one in a YOI. For many
children it is a lottery into which setting they are sent and
prison inspectors have for long found the disparity in conditions

Apologists may point to the fact that, at £50,000, the YJB is
still paying £30,000 more than the unit cost in 2000. Indeed,
there has been welcome but overdue investment, but almost all of
this has gone into education, in which children spend at most 30
hours a week. Little has gone into the wider regime in which they
spend the remainder of their waking hours. Despite the efforts of
those working in it, this remains essentially a prison system for

The reality is that children’s care is a secondary concern. For the
YJB the overriding imperative must be the development and promotion
of credible community alternatives, without which the number in
custody may rise even higher. Children represent a mere 3 per cent
of the prison population and the prison service inevitably
subordinates their needs to the crises in a system essentially
geared to the containment of adults.

Of course, it is tempting to reiterate Ramsbotham’s conclusion in
1997, and to join campaigning organisations in asserting that the
system is beyond redemption. But children are in prison, and will
remain so for the foreseeable future. They, and those who
immediately care for them deserve more than handwringing.

The outcome of a landmark judgement in a judicial review brought by
the Howard League in 2002 is that children in prison have the same
entitlements under children’s human rights legislation as those in
any other setting. This is an issue that will not go away.

Three modest and long overdue initiatives offer glimmers of hope.
Since 2004 independent advocates have been in place in the 17 YOIs
that hold children, although it has yet to become clear how
effective they have been in delivering concrete outcomes for those
they represent. Second, social workers are being recruited at a
ratio of one per 100 children to help local authorities meet their
obligations. The priorities for these workers will require much
teasing out, particularly as to how they can balance their
contribution to the development of the overall care regime with
their responsibilities under children’s legislation.

Finally, for the first time, five years since they assumed the
responsibility, prison officers are being provided with training in
the care of
children, albeit in a programme lasting just seven days. Prison
officers are the major determinant of the safety of children and
experience of custody that they take away with them. It is they who
are the primary carers for the 100 waking hours when the young
people are not in education.

Local initiatives at a few YOIs have shown what can be achieved by
committed, caring officers supported by sound interprofessional
teamwork. The neglect of the prison officer’s role and the
development of its potential has probably been the biggest, indeed
unforgivable, failure in the leadership of the prison service and
the YJB in the past five years.

Cynics may say that advocates, more social workers and increased
prison officer training are just a futile palliative. But, unless
the prison service and the YJB can get their act together to
distinguish between which obstacles are insuperable and which can
be easily overcome, the doubters will probably be proved

Training and Learning
The author has provided questions about this article to
guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl
and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on
a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a
service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered

This article explores the rise in the number of children
sent to prison since 1997 despite government policies that purport
to give priority to community alternatives. It comments on the
failure of the two organisations with responsibility for their care
to collaborate more effectively to improve conditions. And it
discusses feasible initiatives that might result in an improved
regime in prisons for the care of children.

(1) Sir William Utting, People Like Us, The Stationery
Office, 1997
(2) Department of Health, Safeguarding Children – A Joint
Inspectorates Report
, DH, 1997
(3) Safeguarding Children – The Second Joint Inspectorates
, CSCI, 2005
(4) HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the Youth Justice Board,
Juveniles in Custody 2003-4, HMIP and YJB, 2005

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