In safe hands?

In November 2002, a High Court judgement by Mr Justice Munby
overthrew a long-term understanding that the Children Act 1989 did
not to apply to young people in prison service custody. Although
prison service policy had always been to “reflect the spirit” of
the act, this judgement has had significant ramifications. The
prison service looks after most of the children in secure custody,
(2,315, including about 100 girls) compared with 311 in local
authority secure homes and 186 in secure training centres.

But findings from research indicate that the prison service by
itself cannot safeguard young people in its custody.1 It
needs the support and co-operation of other statutory agencies and
effective joint-working protocols.

The research – by the prison service’s Safer Custody Group, which
focuses on preventing and reducing suicide and self-harm by
prisoners – investigated perceptions of danger and safety in prison
service custody among staff and young people.

A key part of the research was to look at why some prison service
establishments seemed more relaxed, controlled and safer than
others. These were identified as two specialised units for the most
serious offenders serving long sentences – the Oswald unit at
Castington Young Offenders Institution and the Carlford unit at
Warren Hill – along with the Lancaster Farms and Werrington

For comparison, Hassockfield Secure Training Centre and Aycliffe
Young People’s Centre (a local authority secure unit) and the
institutions at Huntercombe, Castington and Warren Hill were added
in. We interviewed 113 young people and 51 staff about care
history, experiences of bullying, feelings of suicide and self-harm
and sources of support.

On the whole, the project supported the view that those
establishments thought to be more relaxed, controlled and safer
within the context of the prison service indeed were.

Using a definition of feeling “safe” as the perception that nothing
bad would happen to them, generally young people said they felt
safe, and few felt unsafe. Eighty-three per cent said they hardly
ever or never felt unsafe. They were most likely to say they felt
unsafe in the showers, the gym and the gym showers.

Staff were found to be a vital influence and support to young
people. Experiences before custody reinforced the importance of
staff interaction and responses. Young people told of multiple
placement breakdowns with family members, foster carers,
residential units and sometimes failed plans for adoption before
going into custody. These experiences were associated with problems
in managing feelings, particularly trust and anger, and
relationships, both with peers and adults. Our impression was that
some felt repeatedly let down by parents, carers and other adults.

Coupled with a reluctance to trust adults, young people had strong
personal feelings about justice and fairness. In custody this
translated into strong feelings about needing to be treated
consistently and fairly by staff. It can be inferred that the most
successful regimes were those where young people could expect
consistent treatment by staff and where there were obtainable

There were large differences in staffing ratios across the
establishments. The degree of perceived involvement from staff
featured in several ways and was important. Young people
appreciated staff showing genuine concern or interest, taking time
to talk or following through with things, and tended to interpret
staff who were too busy to engage, or who were sitting in an office
away from them, as not caring. This showed that human interactions
were more important than the built environment, and was consistent
across staff ratios.

A quarter of young people reported a history of self-harm. Some had
already adopted self-harm as a coping strategy in response to
adverse life events before going into custody. Although young
people were confident in seeking staff support for personal
problems, they appeared less inclined to seek support when they
were being bullied or thinking about self-harming. Surprisingly
perhaps, none of the young people who thought about self-harming
said they would seek help from their peers.

Bullying featured as ever-present and a significant issue in every
custodial setting. It was found that thresholds for anti-bullying
interventions were usually set too high. Most young people were
either afraid that something would have to happen to them before
support became available, or did not have confidence that the
system would protect them if they did ask for help.

The most successful anti-bullying strategies were active against a
wider range of antisocial behaviour, such as name calling,
aggression and shouting. Research by the Jill Dando Institute of
Crime Science at Brinsford Young Offenders Institution has also
identified violence as a later act in a chain of events in
retaliation for an earlier act, such as shouting out of a window.

The most common response of young people was to “have a go back”.
Some regarded victimisation and violence as legitimate, such as
enforcing payment of a debt or as a punishment for “grassing”. Some
saw violence as a normal means of conflict resolution, suggesting a
continuation of behaviour from chaotic lives in the community.
Victim and victimiser roles overlapped. Those who reported being a
victim of negative behaviour were considerably more likely to have
used such behaviour against others (78 per cent). Others used
bullying to maintain a position in the hierarchy and to prevent
themselves becoming a victim.

Addressing bullying, fighting, antisocial behaviour and violence is
a continuing concern for the prison service. However, it is
interesting to note that the young people themselves did not
perceive the level of risk to their well-being as any greater than
that experienced in the community.

The “built environment”, or physical surroundings, featured less
than we expected. Where it did impact, it seemed more about general
impressions of cleanliness and decency issues. Litter provoked
feelings of being in an uncaring place. Young people resented it
when they moved into a poorly maintained cell. They felt uncared
for and discouraged from looking after it. The researchers were
conscious of a “broken window” effect, where individual areas or
cells not maintained to an acceptable standard led to a progressive
decline in other areas. Lack of outside exercise was the most
frequent complaint in nearly every setting.

Young people expressed concerns about the way establishments
managed bullying. Some of their own suggestions to address this
included increasing staff supervision, more activities to relieve
boredom and more constructive out-of-cell time. Yet, one-third of
respondents in specialised units felt that no improvements were

There are also some broader considerations for those working with
young people within the criminal justice system and the wider
community as a whole.

The vulnerability of the juvenile population is well documented.
Many have disruptive, difficult and complex family histories.
Estimates of the proportion of children in young offenders
institutions who have been, or still are, in care, vary from a
conservative 14 per cent to what we feel is a more realistic
estimation approaching 50 per cent. Many more have fractured
educational experiences and significant learning needs and

Our sample reflected these characteristics. Overall, 46 per cent of
young people said they had been, or were still, in care. A history
of being in care applied to between 67 per cent in non-prison
service establishments, 52 per cent in prison service specialised
units and 43 per cent in normal prison service establishments.

There is a pressing need to ensure continuity of care for these
young people through effective inter-agency collaboration. The
researchers’ greatest concern is that those currently or previously
in care (possibly the most vulnerable group) might make the
transition from community to custody and back to the community
without structured inter-agency support.

This can mean that a young offenders institution receiving a child
into custody from a care setting might do so with little or no
historical context. Risk assessments and sentence planning may
therefore be based on a limited knowledge of that young person and
their needs, often informed by the young person themselves. During
the period of custody, the young person will have a range of
experiences, both positive and negative, and a range of
interventions and support provided based on available knowledge and
resources. The young person may then be discharged back into the
community, possibly to a care setting, or they may be eligible for
leaving care support services, but with little or no historical
context to their custodial period, and specific support such as
counselling may not continue.

For some young people, custody represents significant challenges
and difficulties, but for others it may be the first time in their
lives that they have a structured and safe environment with
consistent boundaries and positive role modelling, and
opportunities for self-development.

There needs to be a recognition that children in custody are not
just the responsibility of the prison service. A child in custody
today may be a child in need in the community tomorrow.

Chris Holmes and Karl Gibbs are researchers at the prison
service’s Safer Custody Group. Statistical analysis by Jo Borrill,
Rebecca Teers and Tunde Adeniji, research and training unit, Safer
Custody Group.


Perceptions of Safety, Views of Young People and
Staff Living and Working in the Juvenile Estate
, Safer Custody
Group, 2003. A limited number of copies are available from Chris
Holmes. E-mail

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