Sixty Second Interview with Juliet Lyon
A seminar run by the Mubarek inquiry recently heard that young offenders have been held in Young Offender Institution designated cells on adult wings at Altcourse prison near Liverpool. A report out last week from the chief inspector of prisons in Scotland states that there were 18 children aged under-16 held in adult prisons in Scotland in 2004-5.
What are the dangers of young offenders and children being held in adult prisons?
Prison leaves a lasting mark. No one should underestimate its impact on children and young people who are quite literally growing up in jail. Prison is no place for children – they should be held in specialist secure care. For the comparatively few young people whose offending is so serious and violent that there is no alternative, there should be age appropriate establishments run by professional multi-disciplinary teams. Many YOIs struggle as it is. To expect hard-pressed staff in large, overcrowded, impoverished, adult jails to pay adequate attention to the particular needs of some of the most damaged youngsters in the country is pie in the sky.
If procedures are followed correctly young offenders aged 18-21 should be moved to a YOI within two weeks of sentencing but Michael Spurr, director of operations in the Prison Service, said that this had “always created difficulty”. What needs to be done to stop young offenders being held in adult prisons?
A big question. Pressure of prison numbers has already pushed government into considering dismantling protective legislation, the sentence of detention in a YOI, if it can somehow demonstrate real regime improvements for 18-20 year olds. In a grossly overcrowded system there is almost no room for manoeuvre. In the short-term, Home Office Ministers must require prisons to follow correct procedures. The courts must avoid any unnecessary use of custodial remand and Primary Care Trusts must establish diversion and liaison schemes. In the longer term, given the harm done by imprisonment, to wellbeing, family support, job and housing prospects, most solutions lie outside prison walls. Instead of trying to fit so many people into a system bursting at the seams, government departments must invest in early preventive work and develop alternatives to custody for young people – community sentences with intensive supervision, drug treatment, court diversion schemes and provision for those in chronic need of mental healthcare.
Do you think the government has met its 2001 manifesto to improve the standard of custodial accommodation and offending behaviour programmes for 18-20 year old offenders?
No. Young people in prison should be a far higher priority for government. They are a prolific offending group with a strong likelihood of becoming long-term adult offenders. Their time in custody is critical if they are to be turned away from a life of crime. Yet research published last year by PRT, in collaboration with Independent Monitoring Boards, and regularly re-enforced by the Prisons Inspectorate, found that 18-20 year olds have been so neglected that they have effectively become a lost generation within the prison system. It is not surprising that nearly three quarters of young adults are reconvicted within two years of release from jail.
Do you think that improvements in services have focused on younger offenders at the expense of 18-20 year olds?
Yes. An unintended consequence of Labour’s youth justice reforms has been to sideline the needs of older teenagers who offend. To meet rigorous YJB requirements, resources ranging from education, advocacy and sports facilities in split site YOIs are prioritised for under-18-year-olds. The more motivated staff have gravitated towards work with this age group. Although a good case could be made for the importance of working closely with 18-20 year old offenders, a group characterised by developmental delay and still open to adult influence and change, there is as yet no one to champion their needs.