The fate of young adult offenders once they lose the right to be separated from adult prisoners has alarmed prison chief inspector Anne Owers (pictured) and reform campaigners.
The requirement for 18 to 21-year-olds to be detained in young offender institutions once they are sentenced is to be removed later this year with the implementation of section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. This means more vulnerable young adults could be placed with older inmates, leading to fears they could be “contaminated” by long-term prisoners.
In her annual report, published last week (Conditioners for young prisoners ‘in limbo’ could get worse, says Owers, 9 March), Owers asked whether the “already overstretched” prison estate was ready to accommodate the change.
Owers said young adults were already held in “limbo”, often imprisoned alongside juveniles who had “visibly better funding and provision”, or on remand with adults in overcrowded prisons with “poor” regimes.
In a previous report, she raised concerns over a pilot scheme to mix 18 to 25-year-olds at Swinfen Hall Young Offender Institution, saying it was hampered by “short-sighted planning” and raised the spectre of young prisoners being “merely absorbed” into the adult population without adequate support (Board to pilot referrals of young offenders straight to open prison, 26 January).
Owers is not alone in criticising custody for the estimated 16,000 young adults who pass through the prison estate every year. Penal charities have long argued that this age group, almost 70 per cent of whom reoffend, is given the rawest deal.
Home Office minister Baroness Scotland raised hopes last November when she said the government would set up a project to develop a standard for young adult offenders. Scotland said a working group of charities and the Social Exclusion Unit would feed into the project. But the group has not yet even met, and campaigners fear the issue has once again fallen off ministers’ radar.
Will Higham, head of policy at the Prison Reform Trust, says that while the government intends to keep placing many young adults in YOIs, the pressure on the system could lead to more going into adult prisons.
Chris Chaston, policy lead on tackling crime at the charity Rainer, says a “churn” of young people around the adult estate is more likely.
He fears that poorly trained staff in adult prisons are ill-equipped to deal with the complex needs of 18 to 21-year-olds, many of whom share more similarities to juveniles than adults.
This churn could also “seriously disrupt” educational provision and weaken links with offenders’ families and friends, which will all serve to increase the risk of reoffending on release, he says.
“What we need to be doing is giving extra provisions to the age group, not taking them away.”
Chris Stanley, youth justice lead at crime reduction charity Nacro, fears that placing 18 to 21-year-olds with older adults could leave them vulnerable to bullying, and a lack of support could
make self-harm more likely.
The government’s five-year strategy to reduce reoffending, published last month, failed to counter concerns that young adult prisoners are receiving insufficient attention. Home secretary Charles Clarke made no reference to the age group and focused instead on plans for juveniles.
Stanley says this approach “does not seem to make sense”, although he believes there is no deliberate strategy that has led to the “neglect” of young adults.
Enver Solomon, deputy director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London, says the Social Exclusion Unit and the Department for Education and Skills have highlighted the vulnerability of 18 to 21-year-olds, but this has not filtered through.
“Ministers need to wake up to the fact that provisions for this age group are pitiful,” Solomon says.