Legislative change has led to a reassessment of policies that
protect children in custody across the country. Marilyn Welsh and
Greg Williams report.
Youth crime has become a popular political issue that reflects
society’s, at best, ambivalent view of childhood. Nowhere is this
more starkly apparent than in the prison regime itself where
children as young as 15 are incarcerated, bereft of the trappings
of childhood within an alien environment. The magic of childhood
appears to be left far behind as young people enter the portals of
youth custody having assumed the more conspicuous label of
“offender” before graduating to that of “trainee”.
Sir William Utting graphically portrayed the vulnerability of
young people in the penal system in 1997. He quoted findings by the
Howard League: “There is no proper protection from abuse and
manipulation for younger teenage prisoners,” and “the investment
needed in education, health care, social skills and employment
training is likely to be justified only by a comprehensive
commitment to welfare as well as the containment.”1
There are 2,789 young people in custody. The increase of around
5 per cent from the previous year (2,647) could be attributed in
part to the advent of detention and training orders as the number
of remand cases has fallen from 721 to 523 in the same period.
Staffordshire has a high proportion (at least 20 per cent) of
the national population of young people in custody within its
geographical boundaries. Although difficult to accurately confirm,
it is estimated by prison service staff in Staffordshire that over
half of all young people within the secure estate were previously
looked-after children in local authority care. Most, if not all,
young people in custody have special educational needs and many
have experienced other family trauma including family breakdown and
unresolved child protection concerns. Putting children faced with
these difficulties in prison only serves to compound their
Dealing with vulnerable children represents a serious challenge
to prison service staff, who should not reproach themselves for
feeling ill-equipped to deal with the emotional turmoil of
adolescence within a closed environment. Prison officers are
uncomfortable with the responsibilities of safeguarding children’s
welfare and it is a tall order when faced with so many seriously
damaged and disadvantaged young people, some of whom might have
already become parents themselves.
So how are prison service staff rising to these challenges? New
initiatives forged and piloted in Staffordshire are defining an
agenda for action in safeguarding the welfare of young people in
custody more effectively.
Sally Rees, head of Staffordshire’s youth offending service,
first met with local prison governors two years ago to formulate a
common agenda for working under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.
Very early on protecting children in prison was identified as a
priority on this agenda in promoting the welfare of young
This recognised the pivotal role for burgeoning youth offending
teams in maintaining critical links between young people and their
home areas. The following year a multi-agency conference took place
involving the prison service, probation service, police, social
services youth offending teams, health and education services. A
working party was established in setting an agenda for action to
develop child protection protocols and procedures on behalf of the
prison service nationally.
The purpose of the conference was to explore how
well-established arrangements for protecting children could be
extended to secure environments. The conference acknowledged that
if this was to be achieved, a number of conditions would have to be
– Securing interagency partnership at central government
– Custodial regimes to be more open to outside influence.
– Agreeing criteria for applying child protection procedures to
the institutional setting.
– Collecting relevant data in monitoring and evaluating the
outcome of child protection investigations.
– Developing effective training packages.
It was also felt that securing prison service representation on
the area child protection committee would not only bring the needs
of children in custody to the committee’s attention but would raise
the profile of child welfare and child protection in the secure
At the end of last year a conference was held in Stafford.
Workshops enabled delegates to appreciate both the fears and
aspirations of all agencies in meeting the challenges that lay
ahead. Group-work sessions on this interagency basis helped refine
the following criteria for invoking child protection procedures
within the most challenging of young offender environments:
– All disclosures around historical abuse.
– All allegations of sexual abuse.
– Serious allegations in any other category of harm.
– Allegations against professional staff where the harm is
deemed to be significant.
These criteria set the threshold for outside intervention in
protecting young people from harm. They recognise that risks are
attributable to a range of contexts and not just those from within
the custodial environment. They form the central plank of a draft
child protection policy that is the product of Staffordshire’s
The policy has been welcomed by the prison service headquarters
but whether or not it succeeds locally depends on that fundamental
requirement of child protection practice – maintaining dialogue
between key players in local networks. This draft is to be
distributed to all 13 young offenders institutions nationally. It
represents the basis for forging local agreements within individual
establishments about the scope of local arrangements for protecting
young people more effectively.
In Staffordshire, the area child protection committee endorsed
it in February 2001. By that time, Danny McAllister, governor of
Brinsford young offenders institution, had already been welcomed
onto the committee in representing the prison service locally.
Brinsford has 250 under 18-year-olds in custody in its total
population of 500.
This commitment and enthusiasm has been a feature of these early
beginnings. It has generated support beyond Staffordshire. There is
much still to be done in maintaining satisfactory standards and in
addressing problems inherent in caring for the growing population
of children in prisons. CC
1 W Utting, People Like Us: The Report of
the Review of the Safeguards for Children Living Away from
Home, The Stationery Office, 1997.
Marilyn Welsh is a child protection development officer
and Greg Williams is a principal child care manager with
Staffordshire social services department.
The impetus for change
The legislative background to steps to improve the welfare of
children in custody.
The Children Act 1989 is not mandatory within prisons and young
offenders institutions, but the introduction of the Crime and
Disorder Act 1998 has significantly influenced regimes for young
people within custodial establishments. It has caused child welfare
professionals to stop and think again. With the arrival of
detention and training orders, many younger children will find
themselves admitted to the secure estate, including secure units.
There is undoubtedly, therefore, a sense of urgency to acknowledge
and address wider welfare issues, not least the question of how to
protect such vulnerable young people from harm. In 1999, the prison
service issued an important document, the annex to Prison Service
Order 4950, on developing child protection arrangements for this
population. The guidelines rely upon well tried and tested
interagency arrangements that have been seen to be so successfully
applied in safeguarding children in community settings. These not
only embrace the spirit of the Children Act but also extend to
setting up child protection committees within prison service
establishments, comprising of professionals from local child
welfare or child protection agencies or both.
When the Human Rights Act 1998 came into force in October 2000
the impetus for change increased, although the consequences of this
legislation for the prison service and for child welfare
professionals have yet to be properly realised.